Featured Artist: Robby Thomas, Vancouver
My name is Robby Thomas. I work as Technical Director at Digital Domain Productions, where I develop, maintain, and use tools that are instrumental in creating shots for major motion pictures.
As an FX artist with nearly eight years of experience in the film industry, there are quite a number of people who have affected my life in very meaningful ways. From professors, leads, and supervisors, to fellow students or even my own students, each has left their mark, many perhaps without even realizing it. I truly believe that our experience in the visual effects industry is made or broken by the people around us, and I hope to show, through my story and through the role mentors have played in my life, the impact we have on each others' lives.
I've always been a very self-motivated individual. I taught myself the basics of computer programming and graphics in high school and went to university expecting to pursue and career in the games industry as a modeler or perhaps a lighter. Programming was always a passion for me; however, at the time, I felt I would enjoy creative fields more than the highly technical ones, so I let my interest in coding dwindle.
I began at the University of Texas at Dallas with a strange attitude: I fully expected to completely fail. To this day I'm not entirely sure why this was; I think I just had a very low opinion of my own talents and abilities (even though my parents were always very supportive). Regardless of the reason, I felt that I would try as hard as I could, and if it turned out that I couldn't get a job, I would return home and try to find something else to do.
Fate, however, was kind to me, and I met my first real industry mentor in the form of the Houdini professor: Garman Herigstad. I ended up taking his class twice.
Garman is a gentleman with kind eyes and a big heart, a passion for the oriental and a wonderfully creative mind. His demeanor is the perfect mixture of jovial calm. He had, I believe, the most industry experience out of all the professors there, with the possible exception of a few of the department heads, and his highly practical teaching style reflected this. I remember on the first day of class, he described the projects we would be expected to complete. One of these was a set survey, where we would find an object to modify in some way in Houdini, and, to accomplish this, we would need to take a photograph and very precise measurements in order to duplicate it with 3D geometry. I remember grinning widely as the precise nature of the assignment appealed to my technical background.
This strange juxtaposition of the highly technical and the creative completely consumed me. I had foolishly signed up for the introductory 3D modeling in Maya class, a game design class, and a level design for games class in the same semester, overloading myself to the point of exhaustion. Even though I found a lot of joy in my other classes as well, whenever I wasn't in Houdini, I felt it calling to me like a jilted lover. Certainly it was challenging, but everything about Houdini's design felt strangely natural to me in a way other assignments just didn't. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use Houdini in a professional capacity if at all possible.
I think it was towards the end of my first semester that Garman pulled me aside and offered to help me find a job using his industry contacts. It was like a terrible burden had been lifted and I realized for the first time that I might be able to actually get a job doing something I loved.
In the Summer of 2008 I followed some classmates to the SideFX internship on the strength of Garman's recommendation. After almost exactly six months (the maximum length of a SideFX internship) I ended up getting an offer from Digital Domain to be a junior FX artist - my first real job! I was only twenty years old at the time.
I have had several mentors at Digital Domain, each leaving their own unique mark on my own personal story. One person who was very much a father figure for me was Todd Dufour, whose loud, brash personality and constant swearing belied his kind nature. However, undoubtedly my most influential mentor was Ryo Sakaguchi.
Ryo is as crazy as Garman is calm. He would often come into the studio with severe scrapes or broken bones from extreme sports like snowboarding. Ryo was even younger than I was when he got his first job at Digital Domain, but he was always very focused and fiercely devoted to his work. He relentlessly studied fluid dynamics in his spare time, eventually collaborating with Nafees Bin Zafar and Doug Roble to win a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. From there he became a Lead FX artist, and was instrumental in the decision to hire me for 2012, my first show as a professional artist.
I came to Digital Domain with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I had done well in school and during the internship at SideFX and was used to being respected for my Houdini skills. For the first time, I was being thrown into an environment where my coworkers knew far more than I did, and I reacted very poorly, isolating and alienating myself from the rest of the team.
Ryo was not the only one to reach out to me, but he was perhaps the most effective. He gave me a much-needed wake up call, and took me under his wing, teaching me the basics of the creative aspects of producing FX elements while also finding tasks for me that exploited my programming experience. Perhaps most importantly, he believed in me, even though it took me many months to begin being useful to the team. He went out on a limb to shield me from company politics, even as people above him had steadily less and less faith that Digital Domain's investment in me would eventually pay off. He went out of his way to encourage me when I lost faith in myself.
Eventually I began functioning as a valuable member of the team, maintaining a highly technical setup made by one of the other FX leads that heavily relied on the then brand new Python API for Houdini, and supporting other artists in its use. I hope to be able to say that DD's investment paid off, and Ryo's faith in me was rewarded. Certainly I've stayed at DD for a very long time, shifting fluidly between pipeline roles that exploit my programming experience, and FX artist and even lead roles that make use of the creative skills that Ryo and others taught me. I can safely say, however, that without the help of these important people I would not be where I am today, and I feel humbled and grateful to be fortunate enough to have known them, even though over the years we've parted ways and they have ceased to be a major part of my life.
Today, I try to give back whenever I can, earning myself a bit of a reputation as a person who is always happy to answer questions. I teach online classes with CGSociety and CGSpectrum when I have time, and have happily met some of my former students as colleagues. I continue to be mentored by various friends, like Andrew Lowell, who have far more experience than I do in many aspects of the industry.
I truly believe that your success in the visual effects industry is critically dependent on the people that cross your path. I've been very fortunate to have worked with some wonderful people over the years. This article is a small way of saying thank you to a few of them.
Robby Thomas 2016
By: Patricia Cornet