Matt Lowery, Head of 3D at Gramercy Park Studios, explains how his passion for old-school 2D illustration helped him avoid National Service, and why a cowboy named Woody changed the industry forever…
LBB > What creative opportunities did you have, growing up in South Africa?
Matt > When I was growing up I was completely unaware of the creative industries. I always had an interest in the arts, but I went to an academic high school and, in their infinite wisdom, the school decided to drop my beloved art class in favour of a second maths lesson – which really irritated me.
In those days, military service was an obligation in South Africa, but if you went to university you could postpone your service until after you graduated, so I packed my bags and went off to graphic design college.
Through good karma or just blind luck, the state decided to scrap military service after my first year at college, so I literally dodged a bullet there.
LBB > Was graphic design what you wanted to do?
Matt > To be honest, “graphic design” was a bit of a misnomer. It was more like an illustration course, which was totally down to our tutor. I had no problem with it at first as I’d had a passion for drawing from a young age, but really I didn’t focus on the college course work all that much. Mostly just the illustration
My buddy George and I shared a dream of one day working in an animation studio, so he, being somewhat more outgoing than I was at the time, began calling up local animation studios and just inviting himself around to meet them, and of course I just had to tag along. The South African animation and illustration industry was tiny back then, so we’d quickly got around to meeting everyone. I eventually decided to latch onto this animation studio that was just down the road from college, my grades quickly plummeted as I started spending more and more time at the animation studio.
LBB > How did you manage to get your foot in the door?
Matt > Basically, I would just hang around the animation studio, try to help out, and try and get noticed. I wasn’t getting paid or anything but I just kept showing up and they kept giving me stuff to do. After four or five months the owner asked, ‘So what are you doing next year? Because you’re spending a lot of time here.’ I didn’t really know what to expect so I told him that I’d probably just go back to college for another year, but then he flat-out offered me a job and I agreed on the spot.
My dad was sceptical, he’s an electrician with his own business and was keen for me to learn a trade, so he was flabbergasted that someone was willing to pay me to sit around and draw cartoons all day. To be perfectly honest…so was I.
The owner of the studio, Ric Cappechi, was an ex-Disney animator so most of what we were doing was hand drawn on paper, cleaned up, and then painted onto cells – very old school. I was loving it and doing well, but then the whole 2D industry was upended by Toy Story!
Gramercy Park Studios 3D Reel
LBB > Everyone loves Buzz and Woody! Don’t they?
Matt > I’ve calmed down now, but for a long time in the mid-90s I really did hate Toy Story. When it came out in ’95, it changed the whole industry. Suddenly, everybody stopped asking for the traditional 2D animation in favour of the 3D look that Toy Story popularised – and the market just died.
The skillsets of a 2D artist and a 3D artist are very different, even more so back then. But more importantly the cost was vastly different, too. Nowadays, you can spend less than £10 000 on setting up a 3D workstation with all the licenses for Softimage or Maya and Nuke that it might need. In the mid-nineties, you were looking at more like £50,000 for one machine and one license!
Eventually, all the 2D work dried up and I was laid off. Luckily, my boss put me in touch with another animation studio called The Worx, who were actually one of our competitors. They were looking to expand their 3D department simply because Toy Story changed everything, so I moved over and shifted to predominately 3D work.
LBB > How did you find to the transition to 3D?
Matt > Well, because I never really had a background in computers, it was a challenge at first. I’m certainly no technophobe, but we were working with the Irix OS and SGI workstations, rather than your run of the mill Windows or Mac operating system of today. It’s not like you could have one of these machines at home to practice on, so I felt very privileged to be part of some of the only people in the country who had access to this software.
It’s amazing how adaptable you can be when you have to be, and I took to the CG side of things quite quickly and did really start to enjoy the work as time progressed.
LBB > When did you realise your future was in 3D?
Matt > Well the demand for 2D animation never really returned, so it was necessity that pushed me into 3D. 2D will always be my first love, but I did come to enjoy a lot of the 3D work. It kind of surprised me how much I got into it. I love rigging characters and character TD type work.
I learnt more and more about the 3D side of the business, and over the course of about four or five years at The Worx I worked my way up to Head of Department with about 10 people working under me.
Butterfinger's 2015 Super Bowl sport; post-produced at Gramercy Park Studios
LBB > What brought you to the UK?
Matt > After so many years at The Worx, and a further 2 years running my own animation company with some of The Worx crew, I decided to go freelance. A lot of my colleagues had come over to the UK to do freelance stuff, and they were doing some really nice, creative work. Some others had gone to Australia, but I started hopping over from South Africa to London to do stints in a number of major post production houses, and I did that for a number of successful years.
On one trip to London, I received some terrible news from back home. We lost a few friends to horrible violent crime and I really started thinking that South Africa just wasn’t safe enough for my family anymore.
I ended up landing a senior 3D position at Glassworks in London, but after a few years of doing a lot of photo-real VFX work, which although I enjoyed, so had me pining for some character and creature-driven work to get my teeth into. So after 2 years in London, I managed to get a new job as an animation director on a kids’ TV series. That meant moving the family again, this time up to the West Midlands.
LBB > That’s quite the career change. What did this new role entail?
Matt > I started work as an animation director for a company called Inspire GLG, and it turned out to be a perfect fit for my character animation background. The show itself was called Boblins, and although it didn’t exactly have the highest production values (with incredibly tight turnaround time), they were really nice little films. It was my first foray into long form and I loved the fact that the payoff wasn’t sales orientated at all, just pure storytelling.
I had a great time directing Boblins, as well as developing another series called Nikki of the North, but funding was pulled on these projects and the company fell apart a year later. I needed to support my family, so we returned to London and after freelancing around town for a few months, I was invited back to Glassworks again as a senior 3D artist on a permanent basis, this time for a much longer stint.
After five years, I was ready to move on again and Ben Rogers, who’s the Head of Colour at GPS, gave me a bell and asked if I wanted to pop out for coffee. We talked shop and he told me that GPS were looking for a new Head of 3D, so I popped in, liked the place, and the team and I’ve been here ever since.
LBB > What kind of projects have you worked on with GPS?
Matt > It varies. The first job I was involved with at GPS was a huge Super Bowl spot that involved literally everybody in the team; it was great to get stuck into a massive job from day one.
The Big Brother promos we did for Channel 5 were also pretty big and involved a lot of CG. But, in truth, we get a real nice mix of large and smaller jobs.
I’m loving the variety because we even get jobs where you can do it all yourself from start to finish, which is pretty rare for the post industry. I consider myself a generalist, so I feel like I can tackle any role in the 3D pipeline, and working here is giving me the opportunity to constantly sharpen all my skills.
Big Brother Promos; post-production at Gramercy Park Studios
LBB > What direction do you see for the 3D department and GPS in the coming years?
Matt > In terms of GPS as a whole, I’d like to see us doing more high-end post. More Super Bowl spots would be great, but they don’t tend to just fall in your lap. They don’t come around that often, and every post house wants one!
In the 3D department, I’d like us to continue getting more fun and exciting work, and obviously more character and creature work. It doesn’t have to necessarily have a huge budget, just interesting, fun and challenging work. The team we have is capable of tackling any job, but variety keeps us on our toes.
Also we are digging pretty deep into Virtual reality at the moment, with a few projects currently being developed. The 3D department is obviously heavily involved and VR could well turn out to be the next big thing in digital marketing and it feels great to be at the leading edge of this new tech.
LBB > What is your favourite non-commercial animation?
Matt > In terms of stuff I’ve seen recently, I really loved Zootopia. I went to see it with my daughter and we both loved it. Having a background in character animation, I also really liked the stop motion stuff that Laika are doing – like Paranorman and The Boxtrolls.
Harking back to my early teens, I still really enjoy the odd superhero film. I really enjoyed the first Hulk, the one Ang Lee did with Eric Bana, but loads of people diss it for some reason. They may never win Best Picture, but you really can’t fault the VFX in any Marvel film.
LBB > And finally, what else is there to Matt Lowery when he’s not animating and illustrating?
Matt > Aside from regular life drawing classes, I’ve always been a massive motorsport fan. Rally, MotoGp and especially Formula One.