Ben Lambert is a Bournemouth University graduate, studying the Computer Visualisation and Animation course, starting in 1996 and graduating in 1999. Since graduating, Ben has gone on to work on a number of award-winning movies, including the Harry Potter series, Avatar and Gravity. We caught up with Ben at the BFX Festival to find out more:
Can you tell us about your first steps into your career from BU?
In my final year at BU I was lucky enough to get a job offer, or perhaps I was crazy enough to jump at the first job that came my way, in April of my final year. So I had a job lined up before my finals which was great. It wasn’t a glamorous job in London, it was for a small firm in Norwich wanting general 3D work but I, at the time, wanted to just go for it and see what my skills were and where my skills would take me. I accepted the job but they knew I was still doing my finals and my exams so they waited for me. I graduated in ’99 and moved straight up to Norwich and started as a Junior 3D Artist pretty much three years after graduating.
So tell us about your career path, how did you get from Norwich to Gravity?
The job in Norwich was ’99-2000 and it was basically doing 3D stuff for the Millennium Dome exhibition at the time, so that was 14 years ago. It was for BT who hired a company called TeleVirtual to do lots of animation and rigging, which was great because I knew, at the time, that I wanted to be an animator, but I did a lot of technical animation work, rigging, motion capture and building humans. It strengthened the stuff I was learning at uni with general animation skills, which are super important. Looking back then, although I wanted to be an animator, it’s good to get into a role, no matter what size company, to get into a role where you can continue what you learned at university – I can highly recommend people doing a bit of everything to find out what they like. I realised after two years there that I hated animation! I don’t hate animators, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like doing animation, I prefer more tangible builds, and I’ve got a very strong background in cartoon design and things like that, which I was doing before I went to university. It felt like modelling and making 3D characters was the route I’d rather have. Unfortunately, the company in Norwich downsized and the only work really was in London.
So what was your first step in going to London?
London were ramping up at the time for the first few Harry Potter films and luckily they were happy to take on juniors just doing early tests and pitch- and pre-visualisations and just get exposure to the film. So although I could have applied there as a Runner I felt like I had a strong enough reel from Norwich to stick my neck out and say ‘I’ll do anything 3D work-related’. So I was building tracking models, I was doing quick character rigging and everything. So I joined The Mill, when it was known as Mill Film, in 2002-2003. Unfortunately, without going into too much detail, Mill Film closed its doors and everyone went different ways so I was left to my own devices in London out of work for a few months. Yeah, it really does get despondent and I had a load of time to practice more skills, but I was young in London with lots of new skills so there was lots of opportunity there. Luckily at Mill Film I made a few contacts so managed to get myself into a junior lighting role, a 2D role, at Framestore in 2003 working on the film Troy. I was immediately getting exposed to the film structure, this is probably four years after graduating, I was getting exposed to film structure and the way of things and its at that point you realise that each department has a way of doing things in film and, after a few months there, just running shots, helping make boats, doing a little bit of texturing you really get a sense of what department you belong in. Although it is pretty similar how each company operates, you realise the ‘departmentisation’ is a focus of the skill you are most happy doing and they want to get the most out of you and, if you are good at modelling, they want to hone and refine that. So I did Troy as a lighter. I then went on and managed to get work on Harry Potter 4, which is the Goblet of Fire, and luckily I was allowed to try out modelling on a few characters, because I’d shown them what I had been doing in my spare time and I had some ideas. So they let me model a few characters on Harry Potter, the underwater ruins, the Grindylow creatures and things like that – I was known for being very fast at modelling. At the time we didn’t use photo-scan, we were plotting points over clay sculpts that were then scanned in. After that film I moved on to Superman Returns and did a bit of lighting and a bit of modelling as well, I was actually still considered a generalist. It wasn’t until 2005-2006 there when Framestore got an animated feature, which was Tale of Despereaux, that they approached me and said ‘how would you like to just focus on modelling and be a lead modeller on Despereaux – we need people that the supervisor knows and you’ve worked with him before, on Harry Potter 4, and he’d like you to work in the modelling team’. So I was then suddenly very responsible, not just for being the best modeller, which a senior modeller should be, but I had to be responsible, within three years of joining, for hiring and strengthening the team. It was great because I could give feedback to students who had graduated; I had only been in their position five or six years before. Despereaux was great because, although it wasn’t film work, it really solidified the fact that I wanted to be a modeller, I wanted to be involved with characters. After Despereaux had finished I was given the opportunity to be Head of Modelling at Framestore, so between 2007 and right up to December 2013, for those seven years I was Acting Head of Modelling for the company. Although I was still very hands on with modelling, every type of variety you could think of, I was also responsible for hiring and training the team.
What were your highlights from that era of your career – as Head of Modelling?
So, from that time, the highlights for me were Harry Potter 7, I was involved in making Dobby in The Deathly Hallows Part 1, and we won the VS Award for that. We also got to work on Avatar, we got to work on Prince of Persia (the film) – and then Gravity came along. I was more of a Lead Modeller on that [Gravity] because of the amount of people who were on it and after that, after Gravity, we went back to normal. We had a huge crew and Framestore and we had taken on other work as well as Gravity. At that time we had Edge of Tomorrow, we had Jupiter Ascending, which is the new Wachowski Brothers movie, which is coming out at the start of next year. So I worked on that for a bit and also a little bit of work on Guardians of the Galaxy and generally just running the team as a supervisor. So it was great because I was exposed to lots of different shows at once. After that, because I was building up a lot of general skills as well, they suggested moving me to a CG Supervisor role, at the end of last year, on Dracula Untold, so that is what I have been doing for the last 9 months, supervising all aspects of the computer graphics on that one.
It has been such a varied career – what has been your top highlight?
I can’t really pinpoint one – I think the Harry Potter stuff was awesome, working on that, and recently probably the Gravity film has been the best film I’ve worked on. I’d say Gravity has been the biggest highlight, just for the amount of time spent on it. I enjoy working on all the shows though because they are all different. It’s like working with a different pace, with a different flavour of things all the time.
What is it like for you, seeing your work on the big screen? Do you think it is amazing or do you sit there analysing it?
It is weird because a lot of the time, when you are making films, you watch it without sound. So, when I saw Gravity, I had never seen an edit of that before because they were still editing it together. Because of the process of Gravity, and our place in it, we didn’t really know how the assets were being used, or the staging, or why we were doing that weird shot. So, it wasn’t until we did a cast and crew screening with Alfonso Cuaron [the director] presenting it to us with all the sound, that it suddenly made sense. So you look at it with fresh eyes. You do look at it and think ‘did I do this wrong’ and ‘I made that wrong’ but I saw Gravity twice and the second time I watched it at the IMAX and it was incredible – I just enjoyed it as a film and watched it that way.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time at Bournemouth University?
The group projects! In the second year, it was the first time you were forced to work together and find out each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and also you’d be looking at other teams of people doing their group project and theirs were better than yours, a lot better; or a lot worse and you were looking at that! Also, within your team you were finding out who was good at different things – and who was better than the others. As bad as it sounds, that is a really good practice to have at university, and I have really fond memories of working with a group of people who we all found were good at different things, different aspects of visual effects. That is a healthy thing to do because, unfortunately, it is a very competitive environment, the 3D industry in general. There are two things to remember – one is that you have to be aware of what other people are like around you. You constantly have to keep learning and if you ever get complacent and think ‘I’ve learned enough, I don’t need to learn that new software’ then this is probably the wrong career choice. You constantly need to be updating software. Every single thing I do now in my role in terms of software and hardware approaches we did not do seven or eight years ago. Completely different hardware, software, everything! It is constantly evolving and what those group projects at university are good at doing is discovering how you fare against other people – and it is a good thing to do, to be aware of your skills, to be aware of what you are lacking and get good at them! There is always other software around the corner and you can always get an edge by learning something new and discovering it from other people’s feedback.
Is it nice bumping into people who have started and graduated from your course since you left in 1999?
Yes, definitely! I have a lot of questions from people doing the course now, and asking me whether their reel is strong enough for them to become a runner, which I think is a really bad attitude to have. Obviously, no one is expecting to graduate and come in as a VFX Supervisor because you need to have experience, but I would say try and aim high! Try and be aware of how these companies operate and how they are departmentalised and try and picture yourself in five years’ time and what you want to be doing with your skills. But don’t think that becoming a runner is the only way into this industry. Yes, there are lots of people who say that is what you have to do but ourselves and several others on Gravity did not work our way up from starting as a runner – I would encourage people to be looking at smaller companies, commercial places, all sorts of places. The 3D industry now, compared with when I started in the industry 15 years ago, is huge. There are so many avenues to help you become a better artist – explore them! We had limited choices back then; become a runner, get an awesome reel and work your way up; or know someone in the industry who can do you a favour. But now there are so many different avenues; I’d love to explore 3D printing if I had the time – I’d give anything to do other courses, like modelling courses, because it would make me a stronger modeller – so explore!