THE NEXT BIG THING showcases emerging talent in the independent film industry to get their unique insight on the craft behind the movie-making process. This month, I talked with visual effects artist extraordinaire Teague Chrystie. Among his many credits, Teague was part of 2010’s Emmy-award winning team for “Outstanding Visual Effects” on Steven Spielberg’s “The Pacific.” But this man is no one-trick pony. Oh no. He does it all from popular podcasts to balloon animals and everything in between. So sit back and let Teague blow… your mind!
Dan: Let’s say I never met you before. That I had no idea who or what a “Teague” was. How would you describe yourself to me?
Teague: “Hi, I’m Teague. I have a collection of Rubik’s Cubes and vintage Star Tours memorabilia on my upright piano next to the six-foot home-made Saturn V Apollo rocket above the Disney songbook and behind the cocktail manual.” It’s usually followed by “wait, come back!” Then, “You don’t understand, I make balloon animals!” It wasn’t until later I figured out that “I work on movies” is a better opening line. After that, it was a simple matter of actually working on them.
Dan: Ah yes, we’ll come back to balloon animals in a second, but why visual effects? Where did that passion come from?
Teague: Um. Read fast. [I believe this command is directed to you, dear readers]
Ride Star Tours at Disneyland, fall in love with Star Tours. Watch Star Wars on home video, fall in love with Star Wars. Buy Photoshop in 2002, do glow effect on a picture of me holding a remote control like a lightsaber. Masturbate furiously. Try to add lightsaber effects to a video the following week, fail. Retry, fail, retry, fail, retry, succeed, question mark, question mark, question mark, sex, short film involving an animated teddy bear stalking a girl wearing a bedsheet, Hollywood.
That seems like a jokey response to an honest question, but it’s the real answer: there was no decision process. I did a thing, and then did the next thing, and like all of my random obsessions, it was something I learned because I was intensely amusing myself at the time. The origin was definitely Star Wars, and there was definitely some question-marky period in there where I realized artists get girlfriends, but everything else is a blur of bits connected by curiosity. I started doing visual effects in late 2002, and never stopped. Just stopped feeling. No, seriously, I’m a warm person. Help. I’m fine.
Dan: As fine as we all are I’m sure. In your own words, what does it take to make it as a visual effects artist?
Teague: The most important thing is the same for most visual arts; being able to imagine an image, not a thing, and the ability to deal with people who imagine things and tell you to make images of them, when there’s absolutely no way to make that clear visually. And then, you know, make it happen. I’ll give you a “for instance.” Imagine two anthropomorphic cans of soup hugging each other tightly, bodies clung together, and one of them has a boner. It’s a funny idea, kind of. You know exactly what’s happening in your head, but the problem is there’s not an obvious way to have it all work in one image at one time. As I often find, the main problem is seeing the boner.
In my day to day life, I find the ability to conceive of a way to make things like this work more helpful than any of the technical knowledge. The technical knowledge comes and goes with software, but the ability to go “alright, I can imagine that working realistically” is the hard part. I have not as yet had to do much boner-related work, but I did do some cleanup on monster penises in Feast 3.
Dan: That sounds really hard. Any advice for little kids out there coloring on the living room walls or just for peeps looking to do what you do?
Teague: Just do it. You can get a free trial of Adobe After Effects from the Adobe website, as well as 3D software from their various vendors – I use Newtek’s Lightwave, but Maya and 3D Studio Max are popular choices, and even the completely free 3D program Blender is quite robust – and your phone has a better camera on it than I had access to when I got started. Go film the gas station and track in an X-Wing fueling up, or split-screen clone yourself, or do a lightsaber. Set yourself a challenge like that and figure out the details. Additionally, Andrew Kramer over at VideoCopilot.net has a ton of great, free tutorials. If you run into trouble, shoot me an @ message at TeagueChrystie on Twitter and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.
I often advise people starting out to do fantastical “power” effects, because if it’s something you just made up, it’s easier to be inventive and learn to use problems along the way as opportunities. Plus, people can’t say you did it wrong. Make an energy ball glowing in your fingertips, or a force field, or a stream of energy coming out of your eyes.
Dan: What are you currently working on?
Teague: Me and my buddy Ryan “the guy who’s in all those YouTube lightsaber fights” Wieber just finished up a couple big sequences on the upcoming feature Apocalypse, CA – giants walking around squishing people, asteroids, explosions, mayhem, destruction. Lots of fun stuff there, expect that movie to pop into your Netflix existence at some point in the coming months.
Dan: What’s the one thing you want people to know about visual effects that you know most people don’t know?
Teague: I’m going to have a laugh at the FX in a crappy made-for-TV movie as much as the next guy, but the truth of the matter is most of the awful visual FX you’ve ever seen in TV movies were done by incredibly talented artists. Incredibly talented artists, in a couple hours, from scratch. (This goes, with minor tweaks, for most television programming and even some films, too.) Literally, hours.
A project like that is budgeted thusly: we have fifteen grand to spend on visual FX, and one hundred shots. That means if we evenly distribute the work (they usually don’t), that’s a hundred and fifty bucks a shot. They find a guy who charges fifty bucks an hour. It’s not the artist’s fault he had three hours, and it’s usually not his fault that he was hired, all he can do is render what he has three hours later and hope there’s, like, color in the image, let alone an effect. Ostrichceratops doesn’t look perfect in that shot? The artist probably hates that shot. The artist probably hates all of them. That’s not their best work, and if they had six hours – twice as much time – it’d look twice or more as good. The guys doing those FX are often the same guys who do your big-budget Hollywood movies, just at a different studio this week.
So don’t think when you see a crappy looking Ostrichceratops, or whatever biological portmanteau is terrorizing boobies next weekend, that those guys suck. Those guys rule.
Dan: How much time do you think you spend in front of a computer on a daily average?
Teague: All of it. All of the time. My god.
Dan: Okay enough computer talk. Let’s get back to balloons. What is your least favorite balloon animal to make?
Teague: I think I got boring with the visual effects stuff. Sorry.
Dan: Not at all. I just like balloons.
Teague: My least favorite balloon animal is a snake, not because I don’t do an awesome snake, but because anybody who asks you for a snake balloon is an asshole. My favorite things to make are the really bizarre requests – I made a six foot tall Darth Vader for a convention once. One kid at an early restaurant gig asked me for a strand of DNA. For a while I was very handy at doing accurate balloon caricatures, and I made a Jack Sparrow that I still count as one of my best works in any field. The trick to doing balloons is to be extremely quick on your feet, and to figure out – again, figure out the way to make it work – and then set off doing it, and make no mistakes along the way. You don’t get to rehearse a DNA balloon, you just have to make it work on the first try, or you won’t get a tip.
It’s a cut-throat life, balloon twisting. I once got banned from a message board for balloon folk by a clown named Twinkles. Twinkles, if you’re reading this, I still think asking people for tips is balloon prostitution. [after a moment] Twinkles is available for all sorts of parties. [after another] It’s a joke, Twinkles, calm down.
Dan: What’s next for the Teague? Where do you go from here?
Teague: Right now, most of my energy goes into our podcast Down in Front, which has been a really exciting and surprisingly popular departure from my usual pathetic creative ventures. We all work in the film industry, and we do film commentaries, that you can sync up with the movie of the week and listen to alongside. Most people just listen to them on their own as discussions about the movies, but the commentary form factor has been really great, and we’ve established a minor name for ourselves in the community of movie podcasts by, and now I’m quoting a review, “blend[ing] industry background, quirky analysis, and nerd genius.” We’ve done over 125 commentaries so far, so if you’re curious, hop over to DowninFront.net, pick a movie you like, and click play.
Dan: Okay one more thing and then I’ll let you out of here. If I could guarantee you would be extremely successful at one of these things but in order to do so you had to never do the other things you don’t choose EVER AGAIN – which would you choose: Visual Effects Artist, Balloon Animal Maker, Musician, Talk Show Host, or High Trapeze Acrobat?
Teague: The pragmatic side of me says visual effects artist, because it’s the steadiest job. The drunk side of me says musician, because it’s the most fun. The honest side of me says talk show host, because I just love doing interviews and drumming up conversation. I don’t know. I think I’d explode if I had to choose.