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Employee Spotlight: Josh Chappell

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Meet a Layout Artist at ILM London

To begin, could you tell us your role and summarize your day-to-day responsibilities?

I am a layout artist at Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) London studio, and right now I’m working on television projects. Not many people know about layout, but it’s sort of the foundation for a lot of visual effects. It’s one of the few departments that touches every shot in a particular sequence, so you get a lot of variety.

There are usually two types of layout, one that is more technical, and the other more creative. On the technical side, you can create match-moves, build sets, do object-tracking, rotoanim, and stuff like that. It involves building camera moves within a computer-generated set. Object-tracking involves attaching elements to things in the footage, like a glowing lightsaber in Star Wars. There’s not much gray area on that side. It’s either right or wrong, but it’s fun to touch many of the shots. On the creative side, we get to create shots directly from storyboards or shot lists. We’re involved in the creation and development of the actual shots. We get to play around and try things. Sometimes you even do something wrong and they like it!

Layout is the preparation work that serves as the foundation for much of the visual effects work, which happens on top of it. It’s right at the start of the pipeline. We have to be quite thorough, because if anything is incorrect or broken, it can cause problems later on. Layout is a good pathway to becoming a generalist artist, because you learn so much from almost every single department. It’s quite nice to have that broad exposure, and there’s a lot of problem-solving and puzzles involved. It’s a good place for people who like that sort of thing!

How does your role fit within your larger team? Are you sort of dividing up the different tasks?

I’ve not been here very long, so I can only say from experience of my first show. But in general, depending on the show, you’d have multiple layout artists and tasks would get passed around. And it varies. It can be different from day to day.

What inspired you to first get involved in this industry and artform?

I’ve always loved films, both creating them and watching them. I never remember watching anything else. It comes from that love. I wasn’t always aiming to work in film, but when you really want to do something, you end up pulling yourself in that direction. At first, I wasn’t sure about the idea of working for ILM, because that would’ve meant moving abroad. As I look back, I feel like I would’ve moved, but when the London office opened, now there was a chance to work for the company in my home country. It’s a great feeling! I think I’d first heard about ILM without even realizing what it was. I was reading about the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t understand much about ILM or visual effects, but things float back up in your mind later on. The company was always on my radar.

Had you studied visual effects in school? Or did you move into effects work?

Effects was my second career. I was in the military for about six years before I started in film. I was an engineer with the Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers. I learned a lot working on tanks and things like that. But my interest in film was always there and I couldn’t ignore it, so I went to university and studied modeling and animation. I started as a runner at DNEG in London, delivering tea and coffee and things. I enjoyed it at the time! I then started doing match-moves, and I transitioned to some other studios called FrameStore and Outpost VFX. At Outpost I became a match-move supervisor and generalist. As a generalist your job description starts to blur and you learn even more! From there I came to ILM.

You mentioned your service in the military, and earlier you discussed the importance of problem-solving in your effects work. Did you learn about this in the military as well?

Yes, on a much more extreme level! I worked with armored vehicles, and became sort of the handyman where anyone would come to you with different types of vehicles. It’s a hard set of skills, and once you’ve done something like that, it feels like you’ve unlocked this secret set of core skills within yourself. You really understand teamwork – you’re sleeping, eating, everything within your group. It teaches you how to really get along with people.

To come back to the visual effects industry in the United Kingdom, what did the opening of ILM’s new studio mean for artists in the region?

Well, for a lot of people, ILM is a great achievement in your career! It’s a wonderful milestone to come and work here. ILM is a kind of legacy company, one of the first in this industry. You also get to work on great projects and meet lots of new people. There are still people across the company who have been here for many years, and there’s a huge knowledge base. My reason for coming here was because I was just so excited to have the chance to work here!

And have you been working remotely since you started at ILM?

Yes, that’s right. I had been working remotely in some previous roles already, so I was used to it. You miss being around people sometimes, but this has been a brand new situation for everyone. A lot of people seem to like working this way. It allows you to balance your personal life more in some ways. But the hustle and bustle of the office is not something you can really recreate at home with your cats and dogs!

And you actually work outside of London now?

Yes, I am in Bournemouth on the south coast where we have lots of interesting weather! I like the city very much, but there’s more of a country feeling here. I grew up about 40 minutes from here in another small town called Gillingham. It’s nice to be able to live out here but have that London job.

To come back to your role, you describe this generalist aspect to your role, where you work in various disciplines on different kinds of shots. Are there any skills or attributes that you think are important to your role that aren’t necessarily in the specific job description?

Being able to adapt and solve problems are key things. You should have a willingness to take on things that you haven’t done before. There’s a vast amount of things in layout, more than some other departments have to deal with because you’re working with everyone and they all have different needs. Though we try to generalize and cover as much as we can, sometimes you can’t do that and you have to do bespoke work for a specific department.

It’s great how you discuss the importance of being open to things you haven’t tried before, rather than staying too specialized.

Yes, that’s right. For about five years, I’ve actually worked on the side as a teacher at a local arts university as well. One of the things I always tell the students is to start in a more general way, and then become specialized too. You’re not just pigeon-holing yourself into one area. When you keep yourself fresh in general things, it makes it easier to slip into other areas. People have their different approaches. Specialization can work too. When you’re generalizing, it takes time to learn the different areas. Everyone learns differently and has different strengths. It’s about which approach is best for you.

So you taught a visual effects course?

Yes I taught about once a week. It’s surprising how much you learn by teaching! Even though you’re often going over the basics, you realize something you hadn’t known before. The students are like a team of R&D people, and they come up with new stuff too. It’s very rewarding, because now I actually work at ILM with some of the people I had as students! Some of them have even taught me new things here.

Was there any specific form of advice that you often gave to your students?

With visual effects, the key thing is attention to detail and time. It’s only two things, but it’s two of the most difficult things to control in your mind. It’s very easy to get distracted. It’s also good to notice that there’s a lot of healthy competition. There are a lot of really good artists out there. That attention to detail can help you stand out, and take time with what you’re creating. Taking courses in visual effects can give you an advantage, but you also don’t need a formal education to break into this field. You can learn from many different outlets. I’ve never known a bigger community that’s more open with giving away knowledge for free than visual effects. It’s not a secret club. It’s probably one of the only groups that shares things generously so people can learn.

Click here to visit Chappell’s Visual Effects YouTube Channel —

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