Maxx Burman, on Founding Skyward VFX, Art & Technology, & Pursuing Passions.
August 12, 2015
I started off as a video game obsessed, art loving, computer geek who sucked at math, and I haven’t outgrown that much. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and when I was 13, I stumbled on to a copy of Photoshop.
That was it for me. I fell in love with it, and spent most of my free time in school making art on the computer.
I got my first job in visual effects when I was 18, and ever since then I’ve been working in film, tv, commercials and video games.
First Job In The Entertainment Industry
After I left high school, and I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew I needed to be in VFX.
I cold called every studio in LA offering to work for free, and one of them called me back and gave me an internship.
A couple months later, they hired me on as a matte painter. That was Zoic Studios.
There is an endless list, and the Internet is only making it longer.
Matte painting wise, I am always blown away by Deak Ferrand, Dusso, and Dylan Cole. I’ve been trying to catch up to those guys for years, but they just keep getting better.
Ash Thorp and his podcast are great, mixing art and philosophy together. Digital Domain, Psyop, and Blur are always producing the highest quality of work.
These are just some of the people who humble me and push me to work harder.
We are creating worlds, and doing things that seem impossible. It’s this beautiful blend between technology and art.
It’s also an incredibly collaborative art, and when you’re working with a great team, on a great project, and seeing shots come together that surpass anything you could imagine... it’s addicting.
Roles in VFX
I have had many roles in vfx. When I was starting out, I wanted to try everything.
I did a lot of Concept Art and Design, creating rough images/paintings to sell a client on an idea, or to visually explain an idea to a team. I jumped around as a 3d artist, modeling and texturing to create 3d assets for projects.
Ultimately, I found my stride and passion in Matte Painting, creating the environments, and establishing the world around a story.
Nowadays I spend my time as Environment Supervisor, where I oversee the environments of a project, Visual Effects Supervisor, where I oversee the visual effects of a project, and Creative Director, where I oversee the creative aspects of my studio.
What are the skills and traits one needs to be successful in VFX? What do you look for when hiring someone?
Passion. That’s required.
This is an amazing career, and can be so much fun, but there are times when the hours are long and the work is tough, passion is the fuel that gets you past the finish line.
Regardless of your title or role, you are working in a creative field that is always changing.
You need a creative mind, the ability to learn on the fly and the curiosity to do so.
People skills, a sense of humor and a positive attitude is going to grow your network and have people always wanting you on their team.
When I’m looking for someone to hire, their portfolio gets them in the room, their energy and personality keeps them there.
I hit a point with my career where I accomplished everything I set out to do as a freelance artist, and it was time to build something bigger than me.
Having worked for so many studios and seeing what they did right and wrong, my team and I feel like we have a new take on how a vfx studio can run.
We’re blending the best qualities we’ve experienced from other studios, building a strong core, and looking at how we can elevate and simplify every step of the process.
Our mission is pretty simple, focus on delivery the highest quality work, and make sure it’s a great experience for everyone involved.
There are so many aspects to running a business outside of doing the work; this is why having a great team, not just artistic team, is so important.
I’ve definitely gained a greater appreciation for the owners of the studios I worked at, now having a taste of what they were juggling.
Career Highlights in VFX
Portal: No Escape -When we uploaded the video and got a 10 million youtube hits that week. That was insane.
Dark Souls 2 - Going into Blur for a brief where they asked me to design a dragon castle. I mean... that’s one of the coolest things someone can ask you to do.
Iron Man 3 - Getting to work with my friends on rad stuff every day for months. It was heaven.
Her - Working with our tiny awesome team, having a blast, designing future LA. That was a dream job.
Impact of Technology
Software becoming more accessible, and technology being what it is, has allowed amazing work to come from anywhere, and to reach a large audience. You no longer need really expensive computers and a huge studio infrastructure to do great work.
With technical limitations being near obsolete, the true challenge is the design and artistic qualities you can bring to the table.
Working with Skyward's Co-Founder -Adam Reeb
Adam and I met at Zoic. We’ve been through the trenches many times together. He’s Executive Producer at Skyward and makes sure everything is on schedule, on budget, and everyone is happy (among a million other things he takes care of).
He comes from Digital Domain, Zoic, Radium, and most recently the Mill, as Senior Producer for commercials.
Besides being the best damn producer I’ve ever worked with, Adam also has a great eye and good instincts on how to tell a story.
He’s 80% Producer, 20% Artist. I’m the opposite. It makes for a good team.
Spend less time talking about the work, and more time doing it.
When you’re starting out, your priority should be doing as much work as possible, learning as much as possible, and building your portfolio.
Every project is an opportunity to learn.
As you get more work under your belt, show off the stuff that excites you, because the work you show is the work you’re going to get called to do.
Most Comfortable Role Within VFX?
I probably feel most comfortable as a matte painter or a designer, because that’s what I’ve done the most of.
But, because I’m so comfortable in those roles, it doesn’t excite me as much. I’m focusing on vfx supervising right now, which is combining my skills and I feel that it’s my real calling.
I love enabling and guiding artists, and working with directors to realize their visions.
Future of the VFX Industry?
I really don’t have any clue, everything changes so fast, and there are always plenty of surprises. I try to focus on the present and just making sure that every day is a step forward in the direction I want to head towards.
Ego. When you’re the hot tamale, people feed your ego, and if you’re not careful, you’ll start to believe it. I spent plenty of time being clouded by it, and I still slip.
It’s important to surround yourself with people who will take you down a peg or two when you start buying in to all of that BS.
Recognition is great! It’s important, but it’s not why we do this. It’s the cherry on top, and nothing more.
Approaching Creative Projects
I have a creative process; I don’t know if it’s a good one. I start by diving in to endless references. When I’ve seen so many images that I can picture the world in my head, I start blocking things in.
Then refine, and refine, and refine, until it's the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done. Then I spend x amount of hours doubting myself, cursing at the computer and continuing to make it worse. Then I give up.
And when I let go of all the expectations, I see the path that the painting/shot/design wants to take, and I just take it there.
It snaps into place in the end, and if it doesn’t, I start over.
I wish I were good at social media, but I’m pretty terrible with it. I can’t post most of the stuff I do day to day, and by the time I can, my attention is on my current projects. I live in NDA land. Also, I don’t really enjoy promoting my work as much as I enjoy creating it.
Top 5 Moments in Entertainment
- When I got the first call to come in to Zoic, and got to work in a vfx studio.
- All-nighters, watching the sun come up with the team. Every time that happened was special.
- Digital Domain. The people and the Fire House.
- Off-roading Adam’s Prius at 4am for a plate shoot. Crashing it into a ditch, having the director, Steven Ilous, yell “Grab the camera, get the shot, I’ll start digging”.
- My first day at Skyward.
What is something about your career that you would like people to know that they might not?
Work comes in waves. I go from way too busy to nothing then back to busy. I do a lot of projects throughout the year, but I still have slow weeks.
I think a lot of people get scared when the next project isn’t lined up.
It took me a while to be comfortable with the unknown, and to enjoy the down times.
I paint a lot. I consume a lot of art.
I am constantly training my eye. I’m keeping myself inspired, and educated on the good work that’s being produced, and who’s producing it.
I am always looking at ways to improve, whether it’s tutorials or books.
These aren’t things I did to prepare for my career; these are things I do to prepare for my day. Everyday.
I have been blessed with amazing mentors. Syd Dutton took me on as his apprentice, and taught me so much. He really pushed me in to focusing on matte painting and gaining a greater appreciation for the craft.
Cedric Tomacruz took me under his wing, and really honed in my technique and eye. He was an incredible teacher and is a fantastic matte painter.
At the end of the day, my parents are my biggest mentors. They are the most creative, inspiring, talented and wise people I know.
Unfortunately I can’t say what I’m working on now, except for building Skyward into an elite boutique, which is the biggest and most fun project I’ve ever had.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Keep an eye out for the work that comes out of Skyward. It’s a collection of the best artists I know, that I’ve been fortunate enough to put together.
They are working with no limits, in a way that really unleashes them.
I’m very excited for the possibilities of our team and the work that’s being done.