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The VFX-Factor: James Mortner

Tag's Flame Artist on AI and machine learning and the importance of communicating with directors

The VFX-Factor: James Mortner

James started his career as a video editor and motion graphics designer at SP studios, before he moved to Ascent media as a VT operator where he was responsible for dubbing of tape formats, QC monitoring and video encoding of broadcast media. Following that he transitioned to VFX editing and then compositing on Autodesk Flame. He was a video editor and later a flame artist at the Mill, spending nearly a decade at the VFX studio and winning a Silver Lion for his work on “Dove - Ad Makeover”.

Since 2015, he has been steadily working on a variety of brands including Tele2, Arla and Sol, helping clients realise their VFX dream's. During the pandemic, he's been working at home - ably assisted by wife, Julia and cat, Otis.


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? 


James> Invisible post can sometimes be quite tricky as soon as people see it. It becomes spoiled! So, all your edges must be good, your grain and colour need to be spot on, or it does not work.
Big VFX glossy shots require more creative flare. Sometimes it needs a creative push or something extra to get it from ho-hum to something that shines.
 

LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them? 

 
Just talk to us! Let's keep talking about what your vision is. After that, we will figure out something excellent for you. I know it can be maddening to talk to a VFX person and get the sharp intake of breath and “Ohhh wow that's going to be tricky” but we want to help. Honest! 
 

LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft? 

 
I changed from being a video editor to being a Flame artist about six or seven years ago, so I am mainly self-taught. There is a world of training and information online at Logik, FXPHD and other sites. I have also been lucky to work with some amazingly talented artists over the years, who have shown me a few tricks. There are also some excellent books and foundation things to read. 
 

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? 

 
The very very start is always technical for me, thinking about naming and scope. When I get to see the footage, it is always how the shots are ordered and figuring out where to place things and how to arrange elements for the smoothest workflow. 
 

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? 

 
Projects are never finished, only abandoned! The comp (or the perfect take) can always be improved or tweaked, so it is normally when the video is prised out of my hands. 
 

LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that is particularly exciting you in VFX? Why? 

 
I am keeping an eye on Flame as it develops into a cloud-based offering. I think that shift will be incredibly far-reaching and revolutionary moving into the future, as computing moves from server rooms to cloud-based systems. Frame IO is doing some interesting things with video files, coming from set instantly as they are captured by the camera. Machine Learning and AI are also incredibly exciting tools. Suite streaming for virtual remote sessions is another useful tool I can see being used a great deal more in the future. 
 

LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.

 
Honestly, I was nervous about moving home and being separated from my suite. The engineering team at Tag made the move extremely simple and pain-free. I was set up and ready to go within a few hours. Overall, the experience has been really good. 
 

LBB>  Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you have had from working during Covid that you will be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality? 

 
Some of the challenges are simply communicating effectively and keeping things organised, so everyone knows what is going on and expected. I have learned a new respect for good production and scheduling, I'm planning to build on those skills when I get back in the office. 
 

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? 

 
My first post job was at a small post-production company in Johannesburg. I loved working there. My biggest lessons were how to solder properly and cable management which was through the ceiling! Everything I was doing was new to me, so using tape decks, routing audio and video and even operating a bank of VHS recorders was all valuable experience at the time. I know how old this makes me sound... 
 
 

LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of? 

 
I was immensely proud of editing a series of anti-knife crime videos that won awards for the Metropolitan police in London. I was also proud of the work completed for Tele2 here in Amsterdam as a challenging and satisfying creative process. 


LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why? 


Synoptik- Eyes of a child ad was very cool. Nicely designed and effective! 


And our London office's work on Airwick Botanica was very cool as well.


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