In this issue, we interviewed a digital artist Masa Narita who work for ILM the VFX company of Star Wars how he changed the job and achieved his dream. By Kayako Takatsuna
What is the role of CG modeler in Hollywood?
Currently I work at ILM a VFX division of Lucasfilm as a CG modeler working on the creation of VFX (Visual Effects). When I say I work at Hollywood, people imagine a super exciting job where you constantly interact with movie stars. I actually work in front of a dark room every day. I’ve actually never seen a Hollywood celebrity yet:).
CG modeling is like creating a clay sculpture on your computer. I basically create things such as characters and spaceships that are used in VFX. We usually look at concept art created by the art director and transfer that into a 3D model on the computer. We have to use our artistic senses for the parts that are not written in with detail or just completely left out. The job is really challenging because we need to use our own individual artistic senses to create a 3D model that looks good not just from 1 side but from all angles. I created 13 types of the robotic suits that appeared in Iron Man 3, and it was very challenging for me to create suits that looks good looking at it from any side.
Once the modeling is finished, the painter paints the models, the riggers puts in the bones in the models, the animators move the models, the lighters apply lights, and the effectors add in CG effects. The layout artist uses the CG camera to “film” the animated models, and finally the compositor mashes everything that each person did into 1 picture. Modeling is the first step in the process of CG making; if you mess up modeling it affects every step afterwards.
From Wall Street to Hollywood at age of 45
I’ve actually only been a CG modeler for about 5 years. Until I quit my job in 2008 when I was 45 years old, I’ve been working for a stock brokerage firm for over 20 years.
I’ve been a movie maniac ever since I watched the movie “Charade” (1963) when I was 10 years old. I grew up watching “Godzilla” and “Ultraman”, that left me hooked to the special effects created by miniature models. The Glass Tower in “The Towering Inferno” and the shark in “Jaws” were such things that caught my attention. I was really shocked when I saw the SFX in “Star Wars” (1978), shocked and awed to the point that it made me dream to one day work for Hollywood. At the time, though I didn’t have enough passion in that dream that it did not affect my career path. I ended up working for a normal firm.
The turning point came in 1993 when I moved to the US for my job. Not only did my passion for SFX, especially CGI was reborn after watching the movie “Toy Story”, by physically being in the US I felt that the American Dream was not just a story but something that can be realized. I felt that if I worked hard enough I would be able to work in the CG industry myself. When I realized it, I couldn’t help but dream of working in the world of movies. In 1997, I was at a showing of a new CG software and knew at that moment I saw it that I would be able to use it. I bought the software on the spot and for 3 years I have studied and worked hard to master CG. Anyone who can make something superb will be given rightful credit in the US. I made a 5 minute long short film and sent it to 50 different companies. After doing many interviews, I got offers from a few companies; even from companies such as PDI (Currently DreamWorks) known for their films such as “Shrek”. However, while waiting for my Green Card my father died from cancer. I felt like I lost a big goal in life at that moment and seized my dream of becoming a CG artist. That was in 1999.
For 10 years afterwards I worked in the US as a business man for a stock brokerage firm. However, when I was hinted to return to Japan in the midst of the 2008 stock market crisis, I thought to myself “you only live once, this is the last chance to fulfill my dream.” I quit my job and convinced myself to pursue my dreams once more.
I had the basics down through the 3 years of self-studying I did 10 years ago so this time I went to CGI school for half a year to catch up on the latest technology. I created a demo-reel and sent it to about 30 companies; I started off my career working 300 dollars a week. I was later able to work at large studios such as the one I currently work for today.
Challenged dream hard and became a staff modeler
I quit my job I made a goal to myself to “get a CGI job in a year
and be on the movie credits in 5 years.” However, in reality I was
willing to do any kind of job in order to make money. For the past 23
years I was working on a salary that was automatically paid every
month. That stopped, yet money kept on diminishing; the monthly loans
for housing and school drained my money away. In such situation I was
having doubts about my choice; did I make an irreversible choice I
shouldn’t have made? The month and a half I waited after sending in
my first demo-reels was the longest and most anxious time I spent in
I ended up being able to be on the movie credits within my first year of trying. I was very fortunate that whatever is asked for in this job happened to be what I was good at doing.
The first movie I worked on was the 2010 remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. I was responsible for the creation of Freddy’s face as well as all of the CG assets that appeared in the film. My first contribution in a major Hollywood movie was in “Pirate of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”. Later I was responsible for the CGI in the movie “Wrath of the Titans” as the CG Modeling Supervisor.
When I was working for “Pritae of the Caribbean”, I commuted from Irvine to Santa Monica about 3 hours /110miles everyday. I remembered clearly that at the first day of the work, as usually listening music in my car, “One World” the theme of the movie was sudden to start and I cried as I felt that I really achieved my dream.
Top artists in the world is gathering at ILM since most challenging VFX jobs comes from studios. It's also a place for Star Wars lovers. My ultimate goal was to enter the door. I am very glad of being one of the team member and very proud of being the first Japanese as a staff modeler in the long ILM history.
Relying on no one but yourself
The hardest event that occurred in my endeavor was when I was unable to get my Green Card the way I wanted to. I had the willingness to work and even had a job offer, yet I had to give up on my dreams once since I was unable to get a working visa. My 3 years of hard work was all in vain. I actually had to return to Japan once since my L Visa expired and since I was unable to get a Green Card. Instead of going to the lawyers to have them help me out, I collected information by myself and was able to get the Green Card before I was forced to leave. Through this event I learned that “relying on no one but yourself” was such an important thing to know to live successfully in the US.
Right now “Made in the USA” is diminishing from Hollywood movies. Particularly in the past 2 year the CGI industry drastically changed. Foreign countries started to give tax breaks to studios and as a result, most of the CGI jobs left the US for Canada, the UK, and New Zealand. Many studios in Hollywood were forced to go out of business. Full CGI Animation studios such as Disney, Dream Works, and Pixar are still around, but for movie VFX studios it can be said that ILM is the only one in the US that’s still around. I used to work for a major studio called Digital Domain but they were also forced out of business and layoffs ensued, I was laid off as well and after 3 months of job searching I was able to finally work at my dream studio ILM. Many people say that the government should have done more to stop the out sourcing of jobs from this industry, but I don’t really think so. I think this event will further strengthen the US CG industry in the long run. Just as the car industry came back up after many troubling years of mediocre sales, the industry should not rely on the government too much but should resurrect on its own. The industry would surely become stronger if that occurs.
Questing dreams with family support
My personal principle is “Nothing is too late to start,” as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words “Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
I am very satisfied with where I am right now. There are many challenges that pop up in my current job, but I can’t help but say that I am enjoying every day of my life. I always wake up earlier than the alarm rings and go to work early when I don’t even need to. I enjoyed creating plastic models since I was a child and during my businessman years I used to create plastic models to relieve my stress from work. I even won the national plastic model contest in 2004! I right now am taking a sculpture class in ILM for the first time and reconfirmed that there was much more into modeling than just simply creating a model. I was happy to be able to get a prize on my first in-company art competition.
During the weekend I forget about my work and spend my time watching movies with my family, go on walks together, or just simply play with my cats. When I talk about my past decision to switch jobs I often get asked whether my family protested against my decision. My wife has seen me work hard to get into the movie industry and she knew how important to me it was. She has been supporting me forever. When I decided to quit my job she just told me to “Think about it once more before I make my final decision.” She is the one who understands me the most.