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From film FX to the Planetarium: Ben Fox's diverse career as an FX artist

6 minute read

26/08/2021

Ben Fox has had a colorful creative career with many twists that have given him a unique set of skills at every turn. He is currently the Head of Digital Production at Morehead Planetarium, North Carolina, as well as CG Spectrum mentor in our Houdini courses. Ben started out as an actor before studying 3D animation and then specializing in Houdini FX to work on immersive VR projects for Game of Thrones, Interstellar, and Ready Player One.

We talk to Ben about how to diversify your career with the many uses of Houdini in alternative careers to filmmaking and gaming.

After a stint as an animator, what led you to make the leap into FX?

While my main focus was animation when I worked for my master's degree, I got a bit of an introduction to creating VFX. Those were always the projects that kept me up experimenting like a mad scientist. It really sparked a true interest, one of technical creative thinking. I was hired by Framestore as an animator, but they are very supportive of letting artists expand their skill sets and try different things. So I slowly got more and more FX work and less animation.

Ben’s commercial work in Maya & Houdini. See more of his work here.

You've gone from working on films and high-profile commercial projects to creating immersive experiences at the Morehead Planetarium. It shows just how transferable the skills of an FX artist are. What kind of work are you creating at the planetarium, and how is this job pushing the boundaries of what you can do with Houdini?

Creating work for a planetarium is really creating immersive 360 films. It is a medium that requires lots more visual content than a traditional film screen. Houdini excels at creating massive amounts of varied and directable content so it is our go-to creation tool for most shots. Houdini is the best tool I've found to work on projects at that scale with a small team of artists.

People often think planetariums just show stars and space stuff, but the content is mostly NOT space stuff. It is going inside of bodies and onto the surface of other worlds and just about anything else you can imagine.

My acting/theater background was a great foundation for all the work I create now as the lead artist at Morehead Planetarium. Acting gives you a great understanding of storytelling, I use those skills when thinking about what to put on screen to communicate with the audience.

The Field Trip to Mars

As someone who started in a top-tier VFX studio, I know how exciting it can be to work on big-name projects. But there are some jobs out there that may not have big budgets, but really benefit from having top-tier CG talent. And often the schedules and stress levels are much more manageable than studio or freelance work.

Science and education industries need visualizations and CG content.

They don't always post jobs in the regular places, and sometimes use vague language, but do a bit of digging outside of normal places you may have looked for work in the past, you might find a very rewarding FX artist job.

One great example of science, education and CG content intersecting is The Field Trip to Mars. It looks like a complex yet fascinating project to work on. What was your role on it?

This experience required an all new skill set, taking 5 square kilometers of Washington DC streets and building a Martian landscape using World Machine and Unreal Engine.

After generating the landscape asset, I was largely responsible for level design, lighting and creation of all FX elements. This included creating all elements for a massive dust storm, cloth, laser and a time-lapse day to night transition.

Field Trip to Mars was an immersive travel experience created using Houdini technologies, geo-mapping, and sync sound to simulate a virtual bus ride around the red planet.

Field Trip to Mars involved using Unreal Engine to turn 5 square kilometers of Washington DC streets into a VR experience of a Martian landscape.

Reaction from the children was wonderful, do you see more uses for this technology in education?

I feel like shared experiences are really the key to impactful learning. VR is great, but I feel like more augmented reality holds the best potential as something to keep the human connections in events. Once we all have headsets on, it can be a ton of fun, but I feel like that isolation takes away from the power of having people around you.

What other exciting projects do you currently have in the works?

Currently we are making a show funded by a NASA grant about the challenges of sending humans to Mars. When writing the script, we wanted to inspire the next generation of minds, because they will be essential to getting humans safely to Mars and back. Then we shift to an Unreal VR project that highlights lesser-known scientists of varying racial backgrounds in history who made amazing contributions. It is a great mix of some fun game-play and a bit of inspiration and science.

What other areas do you see Houdini being used in the future? What other opportunities do you see for students who want to diversify their careers with their unique skills? And how are those skills transferable?

Houdini has two big areas to expand into - real-time integrations with Unreal Engine, and more fully-produced projects meaning not just using it for FX.

Any time spent learning Houdini will pay off if you are looking to do any work with Unreal.

As a shareholder of SideFX, Epic Games has a vested interest in seeing Houdini's adoption grow. As for learning other non-FX skills, this will help make Houdini a one-stop package for asset creation, animation, and output. It is an attractive piece of software for studios, it is just a matter of having enough people learn the software to be able to have it take over more areas of the VFX industry.

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What was it like to work on VR experiences for high-profile titles such as Game of Thrones, Interstellar, and Ready Player One?

The work that I did for these shows was creating VR experiences to promote and connect with audiences on new and exciting levels. I loved working on these experiences at Framestore because they had such rich worlds and engaging stories that made creating some of the first high-profile VR experiences ever made even more exciting.

Ben worked as Lead Technical Artist on Trailscape, a real-time experience where participants encounter a rock slide on a treacherous trail. 3D assets were made in Maya, Zbrush & Houdini.

What special skills do you impart to your students to prepare them for jobs as FX artists? What are the things you wish you knew when you were starting out?

One thing I stress more than anything else is that great work takes time in your seat, at your computer, actively working. People often think that since things are using a computer, a lot of the work is automatic, especially in Houdini FX. The best results come from people who invest tons of time testing, refining and testing some more.


Itching to leap into a career as an FX artist?

The career of an FX artist can emerge from a love of film and gaming, but emerging technologies can lead to exciting alternative career options. The skill sets of FX artists are in high demand in areas such as events, exhibitions, science, medicine, education, VR, etc.

If you are interested in a career in FX check out our Houdini courses. Our accelerated training with professionals like Ben can get you industry-ready in less than a year. Follow your passions, invest in your talents, and see where they take you. A world of possibilities awaits!

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