Jep Hill serves as the executive creative director of Alkemy X’s award-winning VFX division, overseeing the holistic creative output for the global VFX department. With over 25 years of visual effects experience, Hill maintains a superior creative and technical skill set gleaned from a career at the forefront of emerging visual effects technologies.
Hill built the foundation of his career creating and supervising visual effects for many of the preeminent studios in Los Angeles. Working between both classic studio-style visual effects and leading teams through the entire process of live action and full CG feature films, he worked on a wide array of high-profile projects while consistently improving pipeline efficiencies to optimise and elevate creative output.
Having worked with some of the industry’s most respected firms, including a recent stint at ILM, Hill combines an unyielding excitement for pushing creative boundaries with a keen eye towards process and pipeline efficiency to craft visual magic that defies limits. Past credits include Armageddon, The Polar Express, The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, Mighty Joe Young, The Giver and Spiderman: Homecoming.
LBB> What’s the biggest misconception people have about VFX?
Jep> Frankly, the biggest misconception, from my point of view, is that it's about visual effects. It's always about the story, and visual effects are a means to support the story. Just like the score, lighting, and creativity in the camera, it's all in service of elevating the storytelling. In that respect, some of the best visual effects are invisible and seamless. They help to tell the story in a more powerful (hopefully effective) manner, but they let the narrative take the lead.
LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?
Jep> The challenge is maintaining a fine balance to ensure you have the "right" impact and punctuate the story. Visual effects are used as an element, similar to music and lighting - to create a specific mood, tone, or feeling and elicit emotion. VFX can do the same, so on one end, the big glossy effects can punctuate a performance at the right moment; and there are other moments where the visual effects should go unnoticed. In either direction, it's about supporting the storytelling, integrating VFX seamlessly, and solving the visual challenges elegantly.
LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?
Jep> The VFX supervisor should be able to formulate the approach based on what the director wants. It's also important for the director to feel comfortable trusting and relying upon the visual effects team and understand that VFX is not a silver bullet. You want to encourage communication and trust between the director and VFX team because each director might want something different. The more the director can share their vision and knowledge of the source material and treat their interactions with the VFX team as a creative partnership, the better the results. Vision and communication build confidence, allowing you to reach the next level together.
LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Jep> I learned my craft from immersion. It's like learning a new language; you don't know what you don't know until you start trying to learn. VFX wasn't being taught in schools when I came up, which was a blessing in disguise. I learned hands-on from the people that worked in those roles. It was like an apprenticeship, and as I became more proficient in the field and started teaching myself, I realized that many places weren't teaching students how to get the job or perform well once they got the job.
LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Jep> I learned my craft from immersion. It's like learning a new language; you don't know what you don't know until you start trying to learn. VFX wasn't being taught in schools when I came up, which was a blessing in disguise. I learned hands-on from the people that worked in those roles. It was like an apprenticeship, and as I became more proficient in the field and started teaching myself, I realized that many places weren't teaching students how to get the job or perform well once they got the job. When I began teaching at NYU, it was essential to me that I imparted students with information about how to get a job and helped provide a blueprint to the top once they got there.
LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?
Jep> Effectively, it comes down to schedule, storyboard, and budget. You can't give a valid bid without all three, and these elements all impact the creative and visual goals of the client, whether it's a commercial, feature film, or episodic project. The goal is to support and advance the story seamlessly. So when you return to that, it's important to think, "Where do we need VFX?" We want to identify how to compellingly tell this story and use the VFX as seasoning to give it that extra flair.
LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?
Jep> Initially, we will understand what a creative partner wants. Then, we will get their feedback and refine it to fit their vision and needs best. Simultaneously, we’re also refining internally to ensure that everything we produce is to the standard of excellence we maintain at Alkemy X. We must achieve certain criteria to ensure the delivered visuals can hold up to the specs required for the output. People watch content on various screens and devices, so we must ensure consistent quality across all conditions. When a project is 'finished', it’s up to the producer, showrunner, or director to make that final call. Our job is to ensure the final visuals they are reviewing are 100% tight technically so that the only elements they are tweaking are up to creative discretion, not technical fixes.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?
Jep> To somebody with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. It's about using the right tool for the job and closely examining how those tools evolve. You'll hear much talk about many types of emerging and evolving technologies. We've seen similar fearful reactions in the past, similar to when digital came onto the scene. The technological evolutions serve as frameworks that allow us to paint higher up the canvas. There are some exciting things about the new tech we leverage already to improve the quality of the work and the time it takes to get the job done. However, the most fascinating part of these new tools is how the artists wield them. You could have a hundred people buy a camera, but not everybody's a photographer. The artists make ALL the difference.
And as real time tech and games engines become ever faster and more sophisticated, how do you see that shaping or changing the role of VFX and its place in the production pipeline (e.g. thinking about things like virtual production)?
There is certainly some great work being done, but there are still some limitations with the technology that I'm sure we'll start getting past the next five years. I lean toward technology that allows you to work more modularly and stack the various VFX building blocks to get the recipe just right, and I think it will be pretty impressive.
The gaming industry has taken a lot of exciting development minds away from VFX to work to solve those problems. I see it returning in terms of games and VFX merging again to bring more of those capabilities into real-time. We're seeing great advancements in areas such as global illumination, real-time ray tracing, thick vegetation and foliage, and things like that just came out of game engines. It's still all about elegantly implementing these elements the right way.
LBB> VFX is a craft that relies on you really looking at nature - how light works, how gravity works, the mannerisms of a kind of creature, how crowds work, skeletons, explosions… whether its animation or compositing or anything else… So how do you like to approach the research side of your job? What’s the most random or intriguing thing you’ve learned from working on a project?
Jep> You start learning all kinds of things about anatomy and biology when you begin discussing the different aspects of the face or eyeball, and you start learning detailed terminology. It's fascinating in terms of digging into the biological details of a body part or the mechanics of a certain armory or fighter jet. Still, it's also about ensuring the artists "see" when they look. You look at things, but you may not realize what you see and how it impacts your feelings.
LBB> When you’re watching a VFX-heavy ad or movie, what are the tells that you look for to figure out how well crafted it is?
Jep> Right off the bat, it's about the imaging. If it's out of gamma or it's not a cohesive image, it's pretty obvious. It's also noticeable when a studio doesn't understand how to color-manage imagery properly. Unfortunately, it's impossible to unsee once you know the telltale signs of the imaging being off.
LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?
Jep> I got into VFX by accident. I learned that Roto, Paint, and Matchmove are the most difficult tasks, and those artists should get paid the most because, in all candor, I was terrible at them. I got a gig through a friend of a friend where I started learning painting and roto, and I had NO skill for those, but luckily, I found that I had a knack for compositing. I learned to appreciate VFX's different aspects, especially those I was not personally skilled in. I think this early experience of trying things hands-on to find out what I was best at and get a finer appreciation for the whole process is essential when developing a career in VFX. If I had not taken the time to learn from those who were more seasoned and skilled than me in certain aspects, then I would not be able to look at things from a macro perspective today. The greatest value comes with sharing knowledge, not hoarding it.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Jep> It was probably one of my first films where I composited a shot, and it went in the final movie; that was truly amazing. The shot featured a character being blown backward with practical FX mixed with CG explosions, blowing through a big neon hotel sign. Learning how to composite those intricate elements was an amazing milestone. Having my first shot approved and going into a was an amazing experience that kept me coming back to learn more and hone my skills.
LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why?
Jep> Well, I'm a sucker for anything funny and clever. I love a good, funny commercial and don't pay attention to the VFX anymore. It's about the story.