Ryan Summers

Ryan Summers
Creative Director, Imaginary Forces
Above: Ryan’s workspace.

Packing up and moving half-way across the country to chase a dream is crazy—so crazy that sometimes you succeed, as long as you work for it. One person to make such a journey is Ryan Summers, now creative director at Imaginary Forces. “My girl moved out first to work in VFX and I followed her. I never would have made the leap if she didn’t first. I owe a lot to her ambition.” says Summers.

After a marathon Q&A on #mochat the other evening, Summers was kind enough to go in-depth on a few more questions for Motion League. The interview follows…

Motion League: Describe your first job.

Ryan Summers: Character animation for a direct-to-video kids cartoon. Still the hardest job but best people I’ve ever worked with. I’m constantly chasing a team to work with like that again.

ML: You mentioned MK12, the Gorillaz, and Happiness Factory being triggers for you starting in design. What was it about them that inspired you?

RS: I had just started playing w AE when I found MK12 – and they were a studio who valued doing their own content as well as client work. That was big. Happiness Factory and Gorillaz were two big indelible marks on my brain because it proved you didn’t have to be Pixar, Dreamworks, or Disney to do character animation that moved to people.

ML: What is the first professional piece of work you would say you were proud of and why?

RS: Pacific Rim, because we worked so hard and so smart and made one of my favorite directors happy. Getting a bear hug from Guillermo del Toro because of your work is pretty amazing.

ML: What brought you to Imaginary Forces?

RS: It’s one of the top three places I always wanted to work at, including Dreamworks and Blur. They touch just about every type of creative project there is — from live-action commercials, to screen design UIs, to character animation and film titles. If you’re ambitious you can find yourself next to Guillermo Del Toro or Duncan Jones. All I’ve ever wanted to do is work with and for the best artists I can find. IF let’s you get there.

ML: You mentioned seeing most over 40 move beyond simply designing to owning their own shops or slowing down. Where do you see yourself in 10–15 years?

RS: I’m directing now but I still find myself “on the box” quite a bit, which is an eternal struggle for most designer/animators turned directors. I love building teams and seeing momentum build by getting people who would normally never work together in the same room. There’s a huge gulf in my knowledge on how to finish a show versus how to pitch, bid, and win a show — I’ve got my work cut out for myself there. I used to teach quite a bit back in Chicago and I’m dipping my toes back in those waters with fxPhd. Somewhere in there I could see having my own shop, or at least helping run an umbrella company/boutique under another studio. I look to people like Brad Chmielewski and what he is doing with Loose Keys as an incredible point of inspiration for artists to run their own show. And with cloud-based rendering and collaboration tools getting faster and cheaper, I would love to be able to put some of my friends from all over the world to work on cool projects!

ML: You mentioned a couple personal projects (web comic, TV show, animated short) on #mochat. Would you talk about them and why they’re important to you?

RS: I’ve been burning daylight in every way possible to get to the position I’m at in the industry, and I still have a long way to go. Sometimes you need a pressure valve from what’s going on in your day job, so I develop ideas to give my brain some space. You really need to nurture your creative energy in this industry, and grinding on high pressure projects can get really dangerous to your creative life. If you start working long hours on one job, when you come up for air you can feel completely lost, or worse, burnt out. If you give your self the luxury of daydreaming, there’s always another idea firing off in the corner of your mind that you need to keep active.

I’ve had an animated short idea floating around since I graduated from school — I’ve had storyboards and character designs on paper for at least 10 years. So that’s always there. When I was in high school I made two xerox-copied comic books and I recently revisited those and started writing up some ideas to turn those into an animated series pitch. And really recently I started writing a web comic that I need a couple quiet weekends to break the structure.

Nothing may ever come of them, but they’re the guilty pleasure I afford myself so I’m more than just the stuff I make for other people. It keeps me sane.

ML: You often seem to pull long-hours. Is that self-initiated, just the way life is in the industry, or a combination of both?
RS : Probably a mix of both. I was a science major before learning 3D animation, so it was a really big move to go for a career in art. I always would draw and loved animation and film, but I never considered it a possible career. As soon as I decided that I was going for it, I knew I was going to work just as hard as I was when I was studying chemical engineering. Probably even harder. It’s a lot easier when it’s truly something you love.

ML: How would you describe the current state of VFX as an industry?

RS: Abysmal. My ex-wife is a Nuke compositor and we’ve been through the ringer of this industry together. From the intolerable hours, to the lack of recognition, to the unsustainable grind of a migratory work force — there is very little to be positive about with the VFX industry as a business.

As a creative endeavor, it’s an absolutely amazing time to be a consumer of VFX! Gravity blew my socks off, and it was made for less than $100M. I think there is a storm surge of VFX savvy directors on the cusp that could bring upon a Spielberg-Lucas style rebirth of cinema around the corner. When you get people like Neill Blomkamp or Gareth Edwards, both VFX artists, making movies like District 9 and Monsters, there’s a movement building. When you can responsibly make amazing looking films for less than a $300M bet, lots of slop in the industry can change.

But we need respect. VFX supervisors need to be treated with the same importance as cinematographers; look to how GRAVITY was made to potentially change this for the better.

And we need a union. It is a black mark and an embarrassment that nearly EVERY other department on a film’s credits has access to portable health care. It’s insulting — but all three parties are to blame. The studios, the artists, and the shop owners. There’s too much apathy, fear, and lack of communication to realize this can benefit everyone, and I don’t know what it will take to change the situation.

ML: Do you see motion design heading down a similar path?

RS: The only thing keeping motion design from the same fate is the number of clients we have. Unfortunately, there’s really only 5 or 6 customers to be split up amongst all of the VFX shops. But the plummeting cost of software & hardware, the availability of cloud-based rendering and collaboration tools, the growing labor force, and the readily accessible amount of training is going to have an effect sooner or later. Studios will have to change their offerings, differentiate their branding, and look for tighter partnerships with clients, agencies, and most importantly, their employees, to stay competitive.

It’s not enough to have an art director and a copywriter teamed up anymore. It will be about inventing, programming, partnering, and experimenting. Work is going to be more of a middle grey, not black and white — what I mean by that is you will need to have people of many more skill-sets mixing and iterating, and you may not even know what the outcome of some of your work will be when you start in on a project. It’s exciting and frightening, but then again, it probably always has been.

ML: Why is helping others in the motion design community so important to you?

RS: It’s how I learned. The mograph community is the opposite of what I felt when I was making video games. People had their hammer and they wouldn’t share it. I’ve never met someone who wouldn’t share what they learned. People like John Dickinson, Harry Frank, Aharon Rabinowitz, and Tim Clapham gave away hours of their time and so much of their knowledge to complete strangers, just because they could. When I didn’t know where to go after college, they showed the way. I owe it to anyone else in the same position to offer what I can.

There’s nothing more satisfying than giving someone their first break.

ML: How did you end up getting involved with FXPHD as a professor?

RS: I’ve been a charter member of FXPHD from the start, and that was because I was a fan of the work Mike, John, and Jeff did at fxguide.com. John Montgomery sent me out to LA on a mission to find great potential professors when I moved from Chicago to LA, and even though I didn’t turn up any prospects, he turned around and asked me to be one. It’s an honor and I hope I don’t disappoint.

ML: Can you describe your FXPHD class?

RS: It’s about production-proven techniques that I learned over the last 12 months on the job at FXPHD: I had a crazy run last year from Elder Scrolls to Stage 5 to Person of Interest, Pacific Rim, and Strife, and I learned a lot about working smart, fast, and flexible. It’s going to be about finding the right workflow, the power of Trapcode Particular, and all the tips and tricks for Cinema 4D I can cram into 10 classes. I hope it’s super conversational and very proactive in terms of addressing the post-grads questions.

ML: What would you say to young Ryan as he was just starting out professionally?

RS: You already are an artist — so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Draw more often, and take your daydreams as seriously as you take the work for other people.

Oh, and call Mom more often, she really misses you.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Summers