Atomic Fiction

One of California's leading visual effects studios visit the University of Ulster

Ever thought you could make a living making pixels dance for the public’s amusement? Then Kevin Baillie of Atomic Fiction has some advice for you:

If you want to work in this industry you have to have a passion for it; it doesn’t matter how good you are with a computer if no-one wants to work with you; knowing how to use off-the-shelf software (Maya, Photoshop, etc) is useful; Jim Carrey will not let you shoot an air cannon at his face, not even to make the animators lives easier. (Seth Green, on the other hand, is usually up for it.)

At the introductory lecture to a weeklong series of animation workshops, Baillie lets the eager audience of aspiring CGI mavens (and three people who claim to be there for the free lunch) in on the secret of his success.

Disappointingly for anyone there for a short cut, that turns out to be a whole lot of determination and even more hard work. ‘It isn’t easy,’ Baillie says bluntly. ‘That’s why you need to be able to bring passion to what you do.’

Passion is obviously something that the dark-haired, fresh-faced Baillie has in spades. As a teenager in Seattle he and his friend, now business partner, Ryan Tudhope, were making short films for their school assembly – and working for the Space Needle and Microsoft in their spare time.

Baillie accredits a lot of their early success to support from their school – who let them stay late during the school year and take cumbersome computers home with them to work on during the holidays. He also believes that connections to local business, who would lend them equipment, was also vital.

However, it was the 1997 Eduptopia documentary Learn & Live that set the course for Tudhope and Baillie’s future career. The documentary, narrated by Robin Williams and featuring some very 90s hair, brought the duo to the attention of George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas and led directly to what they refer to as ‘The Call’.

Even over a decade later, Baillie still sounds a little awestruck as he remembers coming home to an answering machine message from Lucasfilm’s Rick McCallum. He was invited to take a tour of the Skywalker Ranch, and after a day spent watching pod-race animations, and baby sitting Lucas’ daughter, they knew what they wanted: a job.

Now all they needed to do was convince Lucasfilm to offer them one working on The Phantom Menace. Some months, and a series of begging letters later, they got another call. ‘Please stop sending me films,’ McCallum said. ‘You’ve got the job.’

Since then Baillie has worked on some of the biggest SF and Fantasy films that have come out of Hollywood. Sin City, Transformers, Superman Returns and the animated Disney’s A Christmas Carol. The iconic scene in Superman Returns where a bullet bounces off Superman’s eye is Baillie’s work. The muzzle flare alone took 36 hours of work. (And, for the trivia hounds, Superman’s eyes in that movie were based on Baillie’s own baby blues.)

Today, Atomic Fiction is one of the best and brightest of the small visual effects companies in California. And they plan on staying that way. Baillie points out that a lot of visual effects companies get carried away with their equipment.

‘Then they wrap up a project and it’s two months until the next one starts,’ he explains. ‘All the while that equipment still needs to be run and paid for, while it depreciates in value.’

So instead Atomic Fiction rely on cloud computing and a core team of multi-disciplinarians – so that everyone knows at least a little bit about what everyone else does. It sounds like a good place to work. When they wrapped on the latest Transformers movie, they parked a taco truck in Baillie’s back yard for the party. ‘It was great,’ he says. ‘I ate 10 tacos and did not feel well.’

Baillie invites the audience at the lecture to send in their reels to him, but stresses the importance of putting your best foot forward. He would rather hire someone with one good scene on a showreel than someone with two good scenes and five bad ones.

After all, stresses Baillie, you can learn the technical side of things – that's the whole point of these workshops and the University of Ulster's new degrees – but an eye for what looks good is harder to cultivate. Baillie doesn’t gloss over the less pleasant aspects of working in the industry.

Although Atomic Fiction believes in a healthy work/life balance, Baillie comments that a lot of companies don’t. It is the flip-side of the passion he mentioned earlier – to work in the industry people are willing to do anything. The important thing, he says, is to make yourself ‘more than a commodity’.

Check out the video below – which shoes how visual effects were added to footage shot for Game of Thrones – for an idea of the importance that visual effects artists like Atomic Fiction have on film and television.