The Mill LA VFX supervisor on the artistic process, Covid’s implications on the future of post production and what makes a good artist
Adam Lambert is a VFX supervisor at The Mill in Los Angeles where he leads teams of award-winning artists. He has worked at The Mill since finishing his studies at University, working in both the London and Los Angeles studios. He has generated a portfolio of industry-recognised commercials including Barclaycard ‘Water Slide’, Grey Poupon ‘The Chase’ and The Guardian ’Three Little Pigs’. Adam is known amongst clients and talent alike for his attention to details and collaborative approach. His work has been recognised by VES, the CLIOs, LIA, Shots and D&AD. A career highlight was leading the Super Bowl spot NFL ‘Next 100’, which was awarded four Sports Emmys.
LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum: the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?
Adam> For me personally and the projects I choose to work on, I always feel more comfortable with invisible post. I think it is an art to hide what the VFX artist has done and to do it well. What I strive for on a daily basis is to seamlessly integrate assets into a shot and make the viewer believe that it was all done in camera and to wonder how it was done. I also look and take a lot of reference videos or stills that I then use to make the shots work even harder. Sometimes it's the real life subtleties that give an effect away as fake. VFX heavy jobs are fun to work on as well, but for me I find them far trickier as you have less basis to reference or match to.
LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?
Adam> I always feel directors and VFX artists should have the same common goal and that is to make the project look as believable as possible. It is a partnership at the end of the day. We both can listen to one another, explain our end goals and objectives and then meet in the middle and find a solution that both parties can be happy with. I really don't tend to get in the way whatsoever and give the director as much creative license as possible, so I can then execute their vision.
LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Adam> Through childhood and as I was growing up, my mother was always amazing at art, so I think I learnt a lot from her. We still share a lot of the same passions to this day. After that I went to university and did a media degree. I wouldn't say I enjoyed all of the courses but I found I had a particular skill for editing projects and always really enjoyed it. During university I gained work experience with The Mill. From that point on I just learnt everything on the job. I worked with some amazing and inspirational artists when I was coming through who taught me tricks and helped me develop a real eye for detail. I personally feel it's one of my biggest qualities as an artist. I also watch a ton of films and take so many photos, which I can then use in my shots. A lot of the time if I'm looking for a certain asset on the internet I will just take my camera out and walk down to the beach or forest and take videos or stills. A quick video of waves crashing or a ripple on water would take so long to recreate so why don't you just film it!?
LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?
Adam> I mean it's always done on a case by case basis and really just depends on the scope of the work and whether there is CGI needed or not. If the job is dependent on CGI assets then the front end of the project is the most important and this is where the key decisions need to be made. If it’s an especially tight turnaround, which is often the case, then shots need to be tracked as soon as possible and decisions made on the cut at the very beginning. Doing this makes the whole project run far smoother. There are many moving parts, so being organised is vital. You also have a huge amount of plates that need to be kicked out: HDRIs, Macbeth charts, chrome balls, etc. The CGI team is massive, so they need it ASAP to get started. When it's a smaller job you still need to be very organised at the front end but if it's just you and one other artist, rather than 30 artists, it's obviously far more flexible.
LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?
Adam> Honestly I just trust my judgement. If an artist gives me a shot back and I see things wrong with it or something looks off then I will obviously get them to change it and we'll discuss what it needs. But if the shot looks good and it looks real then why keep on working? Obviously time crunches are always difficult but I've never delivered a job that I'm not personally happy with myself. It doesn't matter who the client is, the work is the work and I have very exacting standards and I do that for every single project. It's what makes me a good artist.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?
Adam> I'm really interested in seeing how virtual sets and using game engine technology is going to change the way in which we shoot commercials. I really think that in 15 years green screens will disappear and we'll be using this way more frequently when it becomes cost effective. I've already seen some commercials shot this way and honestly you would believe it was real. No green spill to fight from a green screen. The light that's emitted onto reflective surfaces looks totally accurate.
LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.
Adam> I have a love/hate relationship with working remotely. I have enjoyed it on the whole and thankfully The Mill developed a really fast work from home experience so I haven't been slowed down in the slightest. It's just a different way to communicate really. Lots more video-calls on Teams and lots more meetings and conversations about the projects and when I have changes and alterations to shots I often take screenshots or references for my artists to see. It also works great if you are waiting on assets, you can now eat dinner at home and have a normal evening rather than be stuck in the office waiting for them to arrive. The only part I miss is the human interactions you get from working in an office and the camaraderie you develop when working together. It's also so much easier to explain what you are talking about when you are standing next to each other.
LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during Covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?
Adam> I think my communication levels with my teams have definitely become stronger. Now that we're not sitting in a room together it's really important to be thorough in how you explain things and how they need to be done. I also get people to thoroughly check lists with me to make sure we are correct before I send any versions off. Versioning remotely is very difficult, but I've also worked with a lot of the same producers and coordinators and they know how best to support the process.
LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?
Adam> I literally fell into it. I remember I went to my dad's factory one day and learnt CAD design and knew instantly that this wasn't for me. I went to university for media studies and I knew I was good at it but never thought about being a compositor until I got work experience at The Mill and saw all the cool and crazy things the artists were doing. I instantly fell in love with the concept of VFX.
The rest was hard graft and trying to prove yourself daily with ridiculous requests and trying to learn on the job new skills and techniques and still deliver on time. VFX isn't something that you just are good at. It helps if you have a keen eye for detail but really it's about putting in the time and gaining experience. Through that you grow as an artist.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry or the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Adam> I have two projects that I still love to this day. One was a spot by HP called ‘Keep Reinventing’. It didn't win tons of awards or anything like that but I just loved the experience. It was beautifully shot and the VFX was right up my alley. Most of it was 2D compositing with a little bit of invisible CGI that tied everything together. It was like crafting a beautiful painting and to this day I still am immensely proud of it. The second project was the NFL 100 spot for the Super Bowl that we did a few years back. The turnaround on that project was tight for the amount of time we had. It was a four-minute spot with tons of cleanup and compositing assets and lots of matte paintings. It was a huge undertaking by the team and I'm immensely proud that we pulled it off and it was recognised with four Sports Emmys.
LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why?
Adam> I really enjoyed watching ‘Jump’, the new Apple AirPods commercial that came out recently. I just thought it was visually stunning. Lots of bright beautiful shots and some amazing choreography. I'm sure the team had a ton to do and at some points it plays with some really touching moments where he interacts with the sets and manipulates the scene.
I'm a sucker for some older commercials as well, some of the old John Lewis commercials back in England directed by Ringan Ledwidge. Just beautiful storytelling and a really strong concept. I still rewatch them to this day.