Kennth Quinn Brown’s career as a VFX supervisor & compositor has led him to work on productions like Star Wars: Force Awakens, Stranger Things 3, Jojo Rabbit, Transformers: Bumblebee, Death Proof, Avatar, and most recently, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. His background in commercial work includes widely recognizable spots from top-tier brands like Beats by Dre, Old Spice, La-Z-Boy, Apartments.com, Target, Carfax, and Ford. The Houston, TX native started his career as an intern at Austin Film Society and as an assistant to producer Elizabeth Avellán at Troublemaker Studios, where he came up in the VFX world under his mentor, Alex Toader.
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?
Kenneth> Well first and foremost, I think it comes down to the pen & paper. How good is the concept and story? In fact, I’ve never really been a fan of “VFX movies.” However, this is evolving, I think directors are more savvy about how to shoot vfx. I recently watched Thor: Love & Thunder and loved it, laughed my ass off. I don’t think I could say that about the majority of huge VFX movies 10 years ago. Also, Taika is my dude.
As for the challenges of each, invisible vs. heavy vfx shots, it’s usually a matter of objective vs subjective. Many of the heavy VFX shots fall into this subjective realm, yet still have to subscribe to an objective world…usually. In my experience both can be equally frustrating and rewarding.
The invisible usually exists in a world of, “okay, I have to do this to point A and get it to point B and that should get us pretty close.” Whereas a shot like, let’s place the camera on the surface of the sun. Well, none of us have been to the surface of the sun, nor will we, same goes for the camera. What should it look like? If we approach objectively then we have all melted millions of miles before we get there. So, it becomes quite the round-table discussion of how to arrive at this place, influenced by the real world parameters of, if we could be there, what would it be like?
Ultimately, it comes down to my favorite note(s). Just make it look good (objective, invisible shots) or make it look cool (subjective, big shots).
Love getting those notes.
LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?
Kenneth> If I had a tagline as a supervisor, it would be “I have questions.” Pretty much at the end of any pitch or deck or story board, you name it, I will have questions. I think it’s the director and their team’s job to have those answers or ask questions back and be willing to collaborate. Usually when there is a lack of opinion, I feel like the bolts come loose too late in the game and things unravel fast. So I would say, collaborating. Films, shows, commercials. It all just depends on the team and the confidence to either trust them or answer them. No one person can do a project alone. If people give input for the sake of getting their 2 cents in, it just distracts from the big picture and end-quality of it all.
LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Kenneth> By annoying the hell out of artists that already knew it coupled with exhaustive trial and error. I tried several universities before discovering I’m a much better student through experience as opposed to in a classroom. There weren’t any vfx programs available then either, not that I even knew at the time I wanted to learn vfx. Don't get me wrong though, in film school I could break down a Scorsese sequence for 8 hours with the best of them. It was just unjustifiably expensive. I migrated back to Austin, where the cost of living used to be comfortable, and started interning. A friend and I bought an Aaton super 16mm camera. Between shooting/learning with the camera, trying to rent it out to pay for it, working as a part-time projectionsit at the Paramount theater in Austin and interning at the film society, I’d say that was my real film school. All of which pointed me towards Troublemaker Studios which became home to my first job as Elizabeth Avellán’s assistant.
Troublemaker had an in-house vfx company and I found myself migrating to that dept. more and more. Perhaps it was escaping the chaos/boredom of being on set, perhaps it was the Texas heat, perhaps it was to take a nap because it was usually dark and I'm a sleepy guy. Whatever the reason, in doing so I discovered the world of Alex Toader. He’s more than an artist, he is a wizard. He can draw the wildest sketches of the most insane things your mind can fathom, take it to a CNC machine, model it, then model it in 3D, then animate, render and composite it for the silver screen and this was like 20 years ago, mind you. I was hooked. That intrigue led to a lot of very annoying, repetitive and basic questions for Mr. Toader. Towhich he was forever patient, and for which I am forever grateful for.
In summary, I learned my craft working.
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?
Kenneth> First just trying to wrap my head around the vision. The more adventurous the initial idea is, the more I try to slow the pace and really break it down into basic pieces. I think this helps everyone understand how much work will actually be required.
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?
It’s either very easy or very hard. I have a lengthy checklist I adhere to when deciding if a shot is final. I then get the team’s input and give myself the most critical notes. After that, it’s out of my hands and up to the powers that be.
May they be gentle & kind.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?
Kenneth> Unreal is definitely part of our future. Technology is exponential, right? The jump of what I have seen from 5 years ago to now is impressive. I think in the next few years we are going to see some wild things being pumped out at a very fast rate. We already are. I’ve even been asked if I am threatened by the idea of it replacing greenscreens. No. If I never have to pull a poorly exposed key again then great, mazel tov.
LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.
Kenneth> I have commuted in this city of angeles for more hours / days / months / oof..etc, of my life than I care to think about. Working from home was very welcomed, however after 2 ½ years of it I started going back to the office and I am very much enjoying it. But hey, I think a hybrid situation should be here to stay though. Some days people just want to work from home, be with their families and not in traffic like drones. If you’re not feeling it and can be just as productive from home, I think we all are entitled to that choice.
My wife basically told me I needed to get out of the house and she was right. My commute isn't that bad now either. Except when the dodgers are playing. Go Dodgers.
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?
Kenneth> As I mentioned, my first job was at Troublemaker Studios in Austin, TX. I interned there and eventually became Elizabeth Avellán’s assistant, the producer and co-founder of the company. The first time I met Elizabeth, I was timidly loitering outside her office door waiting for her to wrap up a call. This woman, wearing her phone earpiece, dressed in all black, 7 months pregnant, was completely handing someone their own ass on the other end of the line. Shortly thereafter she wrapped up the call, turned to notice me and said, “hey hun, come on in.”
There has never been a person I have respected more in this industry than Elizabeth. She taught me everything I know, all the highs and lows of the industry. She cares for her crew which, for a leader, I think is the most important quality to have. She is also the most confident producer I have ever worked for. Kind, firm and astute. Elizabeth told me early on, “You’re not going to be my assistant forever, but what you have here is a great vantage point of how all of this works, so pay attention. Also, go get me two shots of espresso.”
I listened and paid attention and got her espresso.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Kenneth> I have so many. I’ve been very fortunate to work on some of the most prolific movies and spots in my career. Here are some of my favorites:
My first ever project I was involved in was Frank Miller’s Sin City. Stylistically it was profound, and Robert Rodriguez did a great job of not straying from Miller’s imagery from page to screen.
Avatar - James Cameron would not allow anything that was not 100% photo real and he didn’t care how long it took and it took a really long time, but we saw that reward when it came out in true stereo.
Star Wars: Force Awakens - another example of some of the hardest work put into a movie. With JJ Abrams at the helm, everyone had the utmost faith that he would nail it and he did. The in-house VFX crew worked so incredibly hard on that movie, because that reboot of Star Wars was so nostalgic for everyone. We worked around the clock in the last months of it at Bad Robot. On my last day / night after a 20-30 hr shift, I was walking out the door at dawn and was intercepted to do one last shot. I was exhausted, but it was to comp the opening crawl font onto the space background. I was like yeah, cool, I’ll go out on this. When we all finally sat down at the premiere to watch it and that brass hit and the crawl started, everyone went nuts and started cheering. I cant explain what a unique feeling that was.
Jojo Rabbit - what a great team and perfect movie. Taika is super cool and great to work with, so it’s fitting that his team is as well. I was really happy to see him win an Oscar for it. It was an important and difficult subject, so it really was important that I do my job as well as possible. I love that movie.
Commercials: I have done 100s, but the one that really sticks out is a Shell commercial where the camera zooms into the vent through the circuitry, past the combusting pistons, into the oil…at a molecular level! I just remember the CG artist and I scratching our heads, thinking I don’t know what a molecule of oil looks like and she was like yea me neither. So we just made it look cool as hell, top tier stuff (see below).
In all honesty, I’m thinking my most fulfilling stuff will come from working at Ethos as Supervisor. There’s a really great team here, and I want to build on that. I’m pulling in everyone I know and more to collaborate on things, from Unreal to concept artists. The technology is changing fast and so are the timelines we have to work with on spots, so it’s challenging, but it wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t right?
LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why?
Kenneth> Actually, I find a lot of social media creators to be the most inspiring. It’s a total mixed media art, they have the biggest platform we have ever known, that the entire world can see it on and they are doing some really weird, fun stuff. I love it, there are zero rules. They are our modern day Warhols and Basquiats. And I’m not just talking beeple, I'm referring to everyone from painters animating their own art to musicians looping and manipulating visuals with that to gardeners doing botanical sculpting. It’s always kinda been there in a way, now we can just see it. There’s just so much creativity out there.