By Randi Altman
Los Angeles-based Ghost Town Media was founded in 2006 by a few like-minded independent designers, animators and content creatives. They knew to succeed in a very saturated market, they had to become a creative think-tank of sorts. They like to get involved early and with as many people on the production as possible. Looking at things from all angles gives them a creative advantage.
We decided to dig in a bit deeper with Brandon Parvini, creative director/lead designer at Ghost Town (@gtmvfx).
Tell us a bit more about Ghost Town Media
We’re a small VFX and design house made up of a fairly multifaceted group. We are all linked by generally non-traditional pipelines. Also, we’re all sort of industry outsiders — no one came from big facilities or were former creative directors or technical directors prior to Ghost Town, so this created a bit of an inventors’ culture at the studio. Because of this we tend to get projects others have a hard time with… the weird projects for a weird group.
What is your role?
I serve as creative director and lead designer for the company, and when I find a few minutes to spare I take on the role of lead R&D. You tend to wear a lot of hats when you’re a small house like ours.
What types of work do you focus on at Ghost Town?
Our project types are pretty broad since we are constantly working in various mediums, including film, international branding, broadcast commercials and live visuals. Basically, we like to make all kinds of things.
How did you get involved in this part of the business, and how early on did you know this would be your path?
It was totally by accident. I received my degree from USC’s School of Fine Art, where I was focusing on painting and sculpture. I knew design software pretty well too, but at the time it was more of a hobby than anything else. As you know, there is a pretty big film school at USC, and I became friends with a number of aspiring filmmakers. They would ask me questions, such as, “How do you think I could do this look?” or “How would I make something that did that?” So, I found myself playing around in Adobe After Effects a lot.
The next thing I knew, people were constantly asking me to help with the visual effects for their projects. It all just kind of happened. I always knew I would be working in some form of a visual art, I just didn’t know it would be this. When I young, I thought I would be a comic book artist — I guess that’s kind of the “art kid” version of wanting to be a firefighter when you grow up.
What’s the workflow like there? Do you get involved early on in a production? How early?
The workflow is pretty dynamic; it tends to shift from project to project based upon timeline and effect style. One constant is that we love to get involved early — in the earliest stages of preproduction if possible — even getting involved with the initial pitches with the directors. Because the effect styles tend to be “new” or “different,” we have to think about how to shoot it and we need to make the effect happen.
So we do a lot of consulting, even at times recommending paths that don’t involve post. But overall we will meet the director and producers, help them figure out what they want to achieve (lots of mood boards and bundles of images are emailed back and forth). Once we lock in the look, we try to reverse engineer the process based upon the timeframe and budget. Once we have that locked in we suggest a production path and begin to start on look development. That way we have our pipeline set up by the time footage arrives at the offices.
Can you describe those benefits of being there early?
In post we try to avoid surprises. Bad ones at least. You never want to show up after footage has been shot and have to tell the production that they did it wrong, or that they have to go down an expensive path to achieve the look or effect they wanted.
So getting involved early helps curtail that a bit. Also getting involved early allows the other artists at the studio to get passionate and excited about the project. When people care about the project you see it in the final product. You never want your team treating what should be an artful process like you’re filling out a spreadsheet. We’ve managed to get a large amount of creative freedom and fulfillment by approaching our work like this.
Can you talk about a recent project/projects you’ve worked on? What was the workflow like?
One project that was kind of fun and a little different than usual was the recent branding and cover art we did for Linkin Park’s latest release The Hunting Party. We have been working with them for a while now, but this time was a little different. We had the opportunity to work alongside the artist James Jean (an incredible talent) who managed to knock out about 15 different sketches and illustrations in the span of a couple weeks. Then our job was to recreate it in 3D.
We brought in West Studios and our friend Tyler West to help as we dove into Pixologic Zbrush to reinterpret all the art and make it work in 3D. Then once we had that done, I used Maxon Cinema 4D (C4D) to cleanup and texture everything. It was an interesting workflow since we only had about a month to get everything turned around. This made for a staggered schedule. As some models would get kicked out of Zbrush I would remesh them and prep for import into C4D. I found myself constantly tabbing between software just to do final tweaks at times feeling a little “wall-eyed” as I try to keep track of everything.
It was a fun project and I felt like I was coming back to my roots a little bit as I was able to bring all the tools and weapons we use in standard VFX back to more of an art-minded space. You grow to appreciate how nice it is to have to work on just one frame rather than the thousands of frames you are generally responsible for during a standard VFX project.
What project are you most proud of, and why?
That’s like trying to choose a favorite child! There are a collection of projects I’m really proud of, and all for slightly different reasons. They serve as calling card projects you measure all other projects toward. What’s more is that we really get our projects off of the work we have recently completed. So you get a lot of feedback and positive response when a good project happens.
I’d say the list includes our video for Kanye West’s Welcome to Heartbreak; people still call here asking us to data-mosh their projects. Linkin Park’s Waiting for the End and the Absolut Vodka Greyhound spot are two other great jobs. Each of these projects asked us to bring a different level of innovation to our workflow, and honestly each time we really weren’t sure how we would do these projects. We had to teach ourselves on the fly, and not only figure out how to do them, but how to get it done quickly. You get feedback from others on how much they liked what you did, it’s a nice feeling.
What tools do you have in your toolkit? Do you have your go-to gear or do you pick the best tool for the job?
A lot, and it changes all the time. But we have a main core of software we use as our “grand central,” which includes After Effects, Cinema 4D, Syntheyes and Zbrush. We’re in love with iPi Motion Capture and are trying to get it more integrated into our standard pipeline.
There’s seldom a project anymore where I don’t have After Effects and C4D open throughout. We’ve also taken quite a shine to Element 3D, it’s been great for those quick (sub-two-hour) turnarounds that require a light bit of 3D just to be there.
We try to be as agnostic as possible when it comes to software. Software is evolving so quickly and it seems each package has the one “thing” it does really well, so we try to make it a habit to constantly be learning new tools.
Any words of wisdom for people who are just starting out in the biz?
Be a Barista! Kidding aside, figure out what it is that you love to do. You need to put in your hours. I think there is some clever saying about 90 percent preparation… The point is, you have to love what you’re doing to do it well. I work hard hours and don’t get a whole lot of “off time,” but I love what I do, so it makes it easier.
The other thing I constantly find myself saying is figure out who you are. What do you bring to the conversation that makes things a little different. There are a lot of people flocking toward our general industry: designers, artists, directors. It’s not enough to know a couple pieces of software; you need to have your own perspective or angle. If you’ve been a photographer your whole life, bring that to the table and integrate it to your process. Not a day goes by where I don’t have to call upon some aspect of my time spent drawing and painting when trying to develop a good looking composite or frame.
What do you know now that you wish you knew starting out?
I wish I had a bigger background in 3D, and a little bit of coding. I know that sounds like it may conflict with what I have said earlier, but software is your toolkit, it’s your pencil, your brush. So the more software you know and are comfortable/proficient in, the more tools you have. You wouldn’t use the same brush for every kind of painting. You can look at software the same way.
I spent the first three years not really “getting” 3D software, and was more of an After Effects artist/compositor. There was a specific package that everyone worked in — I won’t name names — but I just never jived with it. It wasn’t until I started using C4D that I really began to enjoy 3D work. That’s opened up so many new doors and possibilities for me that I wish I had known about the segment of visual effects earlier. Each new thing you know how to do is a new way to get something done.