Many Person of Interest fans pay close attention and analyze all of the custom graphics, animations and video effects that are used throughout each episode. Whether its the Machine spitting out probabilities, computer monitors or cell phone hacking, we all look for clues and hints that may come out of a graphic that people work so hard on. Tom Firestone, who has worked on shows such as “Person of Interest”, the “Blacklist” and many well known films, sat down and answered some questions that inquiring fans may have about the process of video effects (VFX) and the background of creating such items.
"Person of Interest" - Screen GFX Reel from Tom Firestone on Vimeo.
JK: You have a pretty impressive resume, notably some big projects such as Star Wars I, The Blacklist and my personal favorite Person of Interest. What are you currently working on and which project stands out the most for you and why?
TF: I am juggling a few things right now. Currently I am freelancing as a motion designer for A&E Networks in Manhattan where I create title cards, lower thirds and any number of graphics needed for show promos such as “Bates Motel,” “Duck Dynasty,” “Swamp People” and “Vikings.” It’s a great place to work; I’m surrounded by a talented and friendly graphics team, and our day-to-day assignments are always changing, keeping it fun and interesting. I’m also doing VFX work at home for a couple feature films being shot in Los Angeles.
As far as a current project that stands out the most for me is a personal pet project. I am creating an animated eBook based on a cautionary tale I wrote back in 2004.
JK: How did you get started and what drove you to do what you do today?
TF: The initial bug came from when I was 7, when I saw “Star Wars” in 1977. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do. I started making stop-motion movies with my mother’s 8mm camera using my Kenner Star Wars figures. I still have these little films. After “Empire” I couldn’t wait three years for the next film - for them to rescue Han - so I made my own “Revenge of the Jedi.”
Photo from 1979/Tom Firestone
Following high school I enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York to study film, but more specifically visual effects. I soon found out that there weren’t any visual effects courses, but one, during my four years at the school. This was back in 1988-1992. In order to get into the field, I became a model maker (traditional miniatures for effects photography). Even so, I found this type of work in Manhattan was slim pickins’ and moved out to Los Angeles for more feature film jobs. Fortunately, soon after moving to North Hollywood, I landed a job on “Dante’s Peak” which turned out to be one of the most praised films for using quarter-scale miniatures, known these days as “Bigatures.” We had over 120 model makers on that film and took over three hangers at the Van Nuys Airport.
This was a little feather in my hat and I went on to work as a model maker for a few years. All the while, computer graphic visual effects were getting better and better. I knew I wanted to be more on the CGI end of things, but I didn’t have the skills and couldn’t afford to go back to school. Miniatures are great, but I loved the idea of being able to create anything you want from within a box, or a workstation. Plus at this time physical effects like models were beginning to dry up – you could practically hear the shuffle of model makers jockeying from one gig to the next, desperately hanging on, fighting for work. Finding it harder and harder to secure that type of work I transitioned to set building, and on occasion, production designing short films and some low budget features, all the while knowing it wasn’t for me, and yearning to be on the CGI end of the spectrum we call filmmaking.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I was able to take a crack at becoming a digital artist. There were a few factors that all came together at the same time for this to happen. The first was that I was between jobs at the time, and fortunately I had unemployment to stay afloat. The second was that I noticed that great artists like Andrew Kramer (www.videocopilot.net) and Nick Campbell (www.greyscalegorilla.com) were posting tutorials on their websites on how to do exactly what I been wanting to learn – there was no need to go back to school (which I didn’t have the time or resources for anyway). And lastly, computers were getting cheaper and cheaper so I bought myself a nice Mac to train on. I bucked down and taught myself what I need to know - what I’ve been eager to learn for over two decades.
I began picking up freelance work and eventually it took off. This is when I joined the union here in New York, providing me the opportunity to work on projects such as “Person of Interest” and “The Blacklist.”
JK: I recently viewed your Person of Interest graphics reel, pretty impressive and recognizable to fans of the series. How many custom graphics are typically used for one episode of a show, because it appears to be a lot?
TF: There are a lot of graphics per episode. A LOT. Immediately after a new script is issued the graphics coordinator and on-set playback person breakdown the script to determine which actual graphics will need to be created for that episode. It’s usually between 40 and 60. Then there’s a video conference between our team in New York and the team on the West Coast to discuss what the graphics might look like and whether we have existing graphics from previous episodes that can be reused or adjusted to fit the needs of the current episode. Afterward we divide the workload to the graphics team, which consists of three artists including myself; two motion artists and one print graphics person (who is responsible for things like signage and props).
Photo showing the process used to create the casino scenes in “Person of Interest” Season 2, Episode 18.
JK: Person of Interest has a lot of fans that pay close attention to all the custom graphics made for the show, including phones, computers and book covers. It is amazing how much work goes into some items that may just be background or a quick shot of it. Is it frustrating to see some stuff people like yourself that have taken hours to create not be used or used for a longer period of time?
TF: Frankly it’s not – for me personally. It’s the name of the game. I’ve spent days on a given graphic – with pages of notes from writers/producers that might result in a total of two seconds of screen time in the end. To me, it’s not whether it makes it to air, or how long it will be on screen, but rather to better my skillset while creating it, and then to have something worth putting on my site that I can be proud of.
JK: When designing items such as phones or computer graphics, is it standard practice to stay away from Windows based or MAC based operating system due to licensing?
TF: Well it depends on the graphic. For graphics such as phones we try to mimic what an actual iOS or Android phone might look and operate like, but tweaking it some to be a bit different. The team in LA wants the graphics to feel as real as possible - so it’s believable to the viewers. However there are some graphics that need to look entirely different due to licensing and any possible misrepresentation of a said brand. For instance, for episode 302 I had to create a dashboard display for an SUV. The scene called for someone hacking into the electrical system of the vehicle and making it steer off course and crash. To avoid making a particular car company’s vehicles look vulnerable to such an act I created a display entirely unique from the picture vehicle used for principal photography.
JK: For the phone graphics, it appears to always be a custom type of phone OS, is that done on purpose to make it more unique and how much leeway do they give you to come up with your own version of something?
TF: As I’m sure you are aware; there are lots of phone graphics per episode. Some phone screens we create as close to the actual phone used on set as possible, while others - that may have a “Finch app” running on them such as a “Force Pair” or a “Tracker” - we create from scratch and run it up the ladder for feedback. Typically the feedback comes back positive with minor adjustments related to how it animates on, or to ditch the animation completely and keep it a static/flat piece of art due to time constraints.
JK: What is your personal workflow when creating and designing custom graphics and videos?
TF: I use Adobe After Effects for all my animation. To build the assets I animate I use Adobe Illustrator and on occasion Photoshop for textures and image manipulation. When a graphic requires 3D assets, I use Maxon’s Cinema 4D or Video Copilot’s Element 3D plugin. I’ve put together something to illustrate my workflow for creating one of the video gambling screens from episode 218 of season two.
More from “Dante’s Peak”
JK: What do you recommend for people that want to get into your line of expertise, maybe tricks or things you have learned that would help students or people on a limited budget?
TF: I would recommend doing lots of tutorials online, the way I taught myself. There are so many great resources today that range from YouTube, to Lynda.com to artists’ personal sites. People are so eager and open to sharing their own techniques and workflows. Frankly, I’m still amazed and grateful for this. But keep in mind; after you do the tutorial once or twice and you “get it,” you must come up with a unique idea of your own to demonstrate what you’ve just learned. No one wants to see your render of a tutorial that’s all over the net. They want to see what you can do with the technique. That will get you work. Believe me, it’s how I got started.
JK: What is one project that may be coming up (show/movie) that you would really like to work on?
TF: I would love to work on Star Wars again, obviously. But now I am back on the East Coast… However there is time and plenty of Star Wars projects to work on in the coming years, so you never know ;)
To learn more about Tom and his projects, check out his IMDB Page (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1601486/) or his web page http://tomfirestone.com/ which includes videos and complete descriptions of all of his impressive work.