Pixel-based Film-making

He’s worked for the best VFX studios in the world, on the most legendary movie blockbusters of our time. From The Adventures of Tintin, District 9 and The Lovely Bones to The Hobbit, Ice Age 5 and Captain Marvel, when it comes to animation, Te Awamutu’s Jesse Lewis Evans is a force to be reckoned with.

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He’s worked for the best VFX studios in the world, on the most legendary movie blockbusters of our time. From The Adventures of Tintin, District 9 and The Lovely Bones to The Hobbit, Ice Age 5 and Captain Marvel, when it comes to animation, Te Awamutu’s Jesse Lewis Evans is a force to be reckoned with.

Now based in LA as supervisor at The Third Floor, this previs artist extraordinaire has spent the last 16 years creating epic work for epic people, and he’s only just getting started.

“I love the creativity of working as a previs artist. We come up with some of the craziest, most insane sequences you see in modern-day film. You can influence a film’s narrative and help drive its story. You feel like a filmmaker,” says Jesse.

For close to a decade Jesse has been based offshore, spending six years in New York as a senior previs artist for Blue Sky Studios, before heading west to the City of Angels.

“I’d always wanted to live in New York, so I was pretty excited when I landed a job at Blue Sky. I’d spent six years at Weta, considered to be one of the best VFX houses in the world, so with that under my belt it was easy to find work internationally. It also gave me a very strong animation reel – the number one most important part of employment hunting in this industry.”

Working as a previs artist at Weta, Jesse was part of a small, talented team, creating sequences from scratch, getting into mocap suits and acting out sequences they dreamed up, taking them through from concept to final. Blue Sky was a whole new ballgame – Jesse would get storyboards and designs from different departments and have to find a way to marry the two to prove that the concepts could work, before passing them down the pipeline.

“Both were actually very different skills to learn in terms of previs. Weta was more on-your-toes, creative thinking, solving problems for a director to shoot. Blue Sky was more structured and following a set of rules so you could keep the entire machine of the animation feature running.”

While at Blue Sky Studios, Jesse worked on Ice age 4, Epic, Rio 2, Peanuts, Ferdinand and Ice Age 5. Time spent previs-ing some of the Scrat the Squirrel sequences in Ice Age 5 was among his biggest highlights.

“Say what you will about the Ice Age series, Scrat is a fun character to work with and I got to do multiple sequences in the film where Scrat went to space and had wacky, zany adventures.”

After six years, though, it was time for a change.

“I was sick of working in feature animation and wanted to get back to doing live action, big VFX films, so I relocated my wife and cat to LA and got a job at The Third Floor. My time interacting with the Blue Sky directors prepared me well for the client-facing supervisor role. Being able to interact with clients is a big part of this biz, and it’s a tricky skill to learn. Keeping them happy, managing expectations, whilst still trying to deliver the work they want to the best possible standards.”

And there’s no room for ego.

“You have to understand that the work you do isn’t your work, it’s the director’s and it’s the film’s. If the director doesn’t like a piece you’ve done, tough, you have to change it. It can suck, but ultimately the director has a better idea of the scope of the film, so the change they want will often serve the film better.”

While Jesse can’t reveal much of what he has worked on at The Third Floor, (“Disclosure agreements are VERY serious in the industry”), he can spill the beans on Captain Marvel.

"I worked in the Marvel building on the Disney Studio lot for 15 months. It was an amazing experience – that’s 'dream come true' stuff."

When it comes to dreams, though, being a previs artist wasn’t always high on Jesse’s list. In fact, when he began his creative studies back in 2000, he’d set his sights on becoming your classic 'pencil and paper' cell animator.

“But in my final year of study, traditional animation pretty much collapsed. Disney, DreamWorks and Fox shut down their studios and the rest of the industry followed.”

Luckily, Jesse entered a TV2 short film competition with a couple of classmates, taking out first place. The prize included an internship at a company of his choice. Weta didn’t take interns and Jesse’s next pick was Oktober, a small but high-end post-production house in Auckland. His eight-week internship morphed into a full-time job and Jesse spent the next year sharpening his skills there.

“Not only did I learn 3D at Oktober, I learnt a strong work ethic. I learnt that to be successful in this industry, you have to commit and constantly be willing to learn. Getting a job can be incredibly hard, but I honestly think passion and a willingness to learn and work your butt off beats raw talent alone. I was an okay animator, but I wanted to succeed so badly I wouldn’t let myself fail.”

From Oktober, Jesse went to Weta Workshop, where he spent the first couple of years as an animator, before becoming a previs artist at Weta Digital in 2006.

“Once I started my animation career, I quickly discovered I was more interested in the film-making side of animation rather than the fiddly business of animating a squirrel’s eyebrow for three months. I had very little idea what previs was when I was offered my first job at Weta Digital, as it had only really been a tool in the industry for a couple of years. As soon as I started, I was hooked. I got to design shots and plan out action sequences for films that a director would then film for real. What was not to like for a film nerd like me!

Jesse says previs is, and always will be, the only style of animation and VFX he ever wants to do.

“I don’t like doing finals animation. Doing the ultra-refining of an animation piece bores me almost to tears. I much prefer the broad strokes of animation. Knocking out quick pieces and moving onto the next so I can construct a story or shot. Don’t get me wrong, previs isn’t the place for lazy or bad animators. It’s the opposite. To be a successful previs artist, you have to be a very strong animator, able to convey an idea and action simply and quickly. Your posing and timing have to be top level otherwise the shots and seq are useless to the filmmakers using them.

“As a previs artist I can use my animation skills to be a filmmaker. Albeit in small pixel-based films that a much more famous and successful filmmaker then uses and takes credit for – but a filmmaker nonetheless.”

Jesse’s advice for aspiring previs artists? Watch as many films as you can and then really study them. What made you like a film or sequence and what made you dislike them? Then find out how they made the stuff you like. Dive deep in the world of film and see what you can learn.