A Few Words with James Owen

If someone is willing to put in the hours in order to refine their craft, whether that be at a university or home, people will eventually start to notice you and begin to open up conversations.

James Owen

Several years back I developed a plugin for Cinema 4D called Hangover. Not only did it make me a few bucks, more importantly it was a great learning experience since it really pushed me out of my comfort zone with Python. I owe this to one person’s encouragement. That fellow is James Owen or also known as Chiny or as I had met him, Hypoly.

I’m sure you have seen some of his work online. Maybe a few Vimeo Staff Picks or are even using some of his tools. James is an award winning designer and director within the motion graphics and moving image industries. Technically proficient with a meticulous attention to detail. He has worked with a wide range of award winning advertising agencies and broadcasting networks world wide. If you are a fan of the design & motion studio Man vs Machine, you have seen his work. Ladies and gentlemen, grab your coffee, a few words with James Owen.

990 So James, we have been chatting for several years on and off now but for those who might not know you, tell them a bit about yourself?

James Hi, I’m James, some people may also know me as Chiny (nickname). I’m a Creative Director currently working at Man vs Machine. I’ve been with MvsM for a a number of years in London, but have recently moved out to Los Angeles to help set up the MvsM LA studio. I’ve been in the motion graphics industry for nearly ten years now maybe.

990  What was the catalyst that made you get into this industry? Was this something you always wanted to do or were there other plans in your future?

James My first passion was photography actually, I studied it in college. I was convinced I would pursue a career in photography because I loved it so much. Working with film cameras, lenses, the long hours in the darkroom processing images, I really enjoyed the whole process. I got introduced into photoshop and got really into manipulating images. That’s when I realized I didn’t have to always get the shot 100% in camera. I could get 70% and fix the rest later.

I learnt After Effects and was able to bring my static images to life and make them move. I went on to study graphic design and started bringing that work into my compositions. I then got introduced to Maya/C4D and found out that I didn’t need to take the photos anymore, I could make something in 3D and make that move instead. After that moment, my passion moved on to 3D in a big way. Still bringing everything I had learnt from photography and graphic design, but combining them in this unrestricted world of 3D. So photography was my catalyst into the industry.

Swirl
Swirl

990 Yes, I feel photography is so beneficial to understand. I was into photography for a while but haven’t picked up a DSLR for some time. Do you still go out and shoot?

James I too haven’t picked up a DSLR for some time now but it’s certainly something I plan to get back into in the near future.

990 Do you have any formal training in design, VFX, animation, etc?

James I studied photography at college and then went on to do a degree in graphic design at the Arts Institute in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. When it comes to 3D, animation, or coding, all of that has been self-taught. In a way I think it’s the best way of learning, but at times, I think it’s the worst as one can easily develop bad habits. While you’re learning things on your own, who’s to say that what you’re doing is not the most effective or standard way of doing things, right? It’s when you get into production, that’s when the bad habits can show themselves. Being aware of that is something I’ve found important to understand with the way I learn things.

990  What would you say is your main focus? VFX, motion graphics, animation, or do you like tackling it all?

James I think my main focus is 3D and the creative. I say 3D because I think it encompasses all aspects of VFX, motion graphics or animation in one. Things in 3D can be made really simple, clean and graphic, or the most intense full featured scene. I really enjoying tackling all aspects, some weeks I’ll be really into animation to the point where I’m coding my own tools to help me get the sorts of motion I’m thinking, to other weeks where I just want to concentrate on minimal graphic forms, compositions and the creative.

990 Last we spoke, you had started freelancing. Is that still the case?

James I freelanced for a little while in London but then decided to join MvsM a number of years ago which ultimately led to me moving over here to Los Angeles, which has been great.

Once I had grasped the concept of attributes and everything in Houdini is pretty much points, that’s when the fun started for me.

990 How has the transition to the States been?

James It’s been good, Los Angeles is a really interesting place and I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m looking forward to discovering more of this vast city and all the amazing spots around California. The sunshine has been a nice change from London’s grey days too.

Claw
Claw

990 So I believe you started out in Cinema 4D. Is that right or did you use other 3D applications prior to using Cinema 4D?

James Yeah, I would say that the first 3D application I got used to and learnt everything in was Cinema 4D. When I was starting out it was such an intuitive application that just made 3D make sense. I had opened Maya before, but it was so confusing, it felt more like a badly organized tool box compared to Cinema’s curated collection of tools. I’ve since developed from that mind set and now actually don’t mind Maya that much, it’s just a different way of doing things. Once you have the foundations of 3D down, what application you use doesn’t make a difference, it’s just skinned differently.

990 How How long have you been using Houdini? Do you still jump back to Cinema 4D?

James I’ve been using Houdini for over two years now. It’s been a real change in the way I work and one I’ve really enjoyed. Yes, I still jump back to Cinema 4D every now and then purely because some things in Cinema can be done so quickly compared to any other applications. It makes sense to use all the tools you have at your disposal, rather than being restricted to one application.

This is why I bounce around a lot of software. I use whatever I need too in order to get the job done really. Where it comes from, or how it’s been made is neither here or there for me, it’s the end product that’s the interesting bit. Saying that though, as Houdini is so vast in its tools sets, I do find the majority of my time is spent there because you have everything available to you, whereas in some other applications you may need to buy a plugin to achieve something for example.

990 Why did you start using Houdini in the first place?

James The first ever time I used Houdini was for a job I was working at MvsM. I was making an exploding football and was running into real problems with the tools available in Cinema 4D. I was looking for other ways to solve the problem and knew Houdini had some amazing Voronoi fracturing tools so I forced myself to learn it in a few days. It was surprisingly easy to get to grips as to how Houdini worked, and I was able to get the job done much faster which was great. That was my first interaction with Houdini, after that job was done, I didn’t go back to Houdini for about another 6 months.

990 How was that transition from Cinema 4D to Houdini since they have different paradigms and different learning curves?

James Houdini is a very unique application, and as you say, has very different paradigms and different learning curves. I think because I had done a lot of Python scripting in Cinema 4D before, the way data flowed in Houdini made sense because it mirrored the way code can be laid out. You can follow the data all the way through the setup and adjust whatever aspect you need to adjust throughout, just like code.

I think that’s why I found it a fun transition. Once I had grasped the concept of attributes and everything in Houdini is pretty much points, that’s when the fun started for me. I still feel like I’m learning new things in Houdini all the time, I don’t think one can stop learning in Houdini to be honest, and for my curious brain, I think its suits me very well.

Sentry
Sentry

990 Houdini is such a large and complex application. What was the hardest concept for you to grasp in Houdini? I still struggle with constraints.

James Yeah constraints are really painful. Like really painful. Some days I feel like they are starting to make sense, but if you leave it a few days and try to go back to them, it gets messy again. That’s one thing I’ve found with Houdini, unless you’re working on a job that requires a particular effect that forces you to use the crowd tools for example, or Flip fluids, it’s such a huge program, that it can get daunting. I think that’s why I would say try and focus on what you need to achieve, but also look at other unexplored aspects of Houdini little by little.

I don’t think anyone can ever master all aspects of Houdini in the same way one can with other applications, because there is so much good stuff in there. Another thing is that there are always a ton of ways to achieve a similar effect in Houdini, and that’s precisely why I’d recommend exploring some of the nodes you haven’t used yet, because it could open up a different way of doing the same task, but with more interesting results.

But yes, there are days where I still struggle to get something working in a way I think it should, but Houdini has a great helpful community, so just asking the right question can lead one down a path to solving the problem. That’s been really useful for me, asking the wider community when I run into dead ends.

990 What areas do you think Side Effects could improve Houdini?

James With the release of 16.5, Side Effects have shown they really have some great ideas and developers pushing the envelope of high-end 3D software. I personally would like to see a re-work of the CHOPS system. So many other areas of Houdini have seen some love recently, I believe it’s CHOPS turn next.

Black Threads
Black Threads

990 Do you think it’s essential to have an understanding of programming to really grasp Houdini? Or do you think you can get by without it? There is VOPS but it’s still a form of programming.

James When I was first jumping into Houdini I didn’t do anything with Python or Vex, I wanted, and more importantly, needed to know the fundamentals of the software before I moved on to other topics. VOPS is a great way of manipulating data without writing a line of code, but as you say, it’s still a form of programming and one I would recommend people to be familiar with because sometimes it can be more efficient to use VOPS instead of writing out VEX depending on the task. For example, working with Noise.

990 If you could recommend a programming language, which do you think beginners should start with?

James Python. I think it’s a great language to learn and certainly helped feed into learning other languages for me.

990 What other programming languages have you dabbled in since then? I recall you have jumped into C++ right?

James Yes, I jumped into C++ for a short period while I was making a C++ plugin for Cinema 4D. Honestly, I can say I didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s an old language by today’s standards and come’s with its own quirks. The upside to it is that it run’s really fast on the processor so you do get the rewards of your labor when writing C++.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of checking Instagram every hour waiting for that artist’s new posting or wondering why your post hasn’t had 1,000 likes.

990 If someone is looking to learn Houdini coming from another package, what advice would you give them in order to learn Houdini? Is there a particular area they should first concentrate on?

James I remember the way I learned Houdini was to take some ‘How to master Houdini’ book on holiday. It meant that I was away from my computer so I was forced to go over and over the concepts and fundamentals of a topic like SOPS without actually opening the application. If that works for other people, I would highly recommend doing it that way. It made Houdini seem far less daunting when I finally got to open it and made learning it a fun process.

990 Higher education is a big deal these days. Myself, I think it’s important. Especially for the contacts and networks you build while in school. Do you think going to university is important these days for our industry?

James I believe higher education is important. It’s important because it helps further develop one’s own ability for critical thinking amongst many other skills. But with that said, it’s certainly not the only way into our industry these days. If someone is willing to put in the hours in order to refine their craft, whether that be at a university or at home, people will eventually start to notice you and begin to open up conversations.

Nike R&D
Nike R&D

990 So how do you go about dealing with training these days? Personally, I never seem to find the time to watch that 5-hour tutorial.

James I used to fit in a couple of hours of self-learning or watching training videos in the early mornings. I don’t do that as much anymore. I still manage to have a glimpse of the week’s new videos from time to time but think it’s all about being selective with your time. I’ve seen a lot of people watch an hour long tutorial and learn nothing from it that aid’s the job they have at hand. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time because that hour lost is going to have to be made up somewhere else.

990 Anything new you are focusing on and learning and why?

James Recently I’ve been focusing more on the conceptual side of projects, it’s something I’ve always done but am now further developing and expanding upon it, which all comes back to what I mentioned earlier. About staying hungry to learn and expanding into other areas. This industry isn’t standing still, so why should you?

990  Do you have any other interest besides VFX/Animation?

James I’m still a big fan of basketball and BMX, I also really enjoying swimming especially in the ocean. Next year I’ve set a goal to lean surfing.

990 It’s no secret the industry has evolved. Years ago it was blasphemy to be a jack of all trades. Now it seems you are almost forced to be one. A lot of professionals are going into UI design and animation, interactive, gaming, etc. What are your thoughts on this?

James It is true that once upon a time if you didn’t focus on one area of the trade, you would seem like you weren’t at the top of your game. I personally have always liked jumping over all aspects of the industry, from concepting, designing and directing to lighting, rendering and animating. I think it’s important to understand how one affects and flows into the other disciplines and the only way to truly know that, is by doing it. Not just learning about it, but actually getting stuck in and doing it.

I would hope the industry becomes less about how fast one can make something and focus more on the time, and why one has made something. But that’s a very idealistic few, and one where the client’s budgets are overflowing…. which we all know isn’t the case.

990 Where do you go for inspiration these days?

James I used to spend a lot of time soaking in all the inspiration from all the big sites on the internet but I’ve taken a step back from that recently. I found that it was just becoming an overload on the senses. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in good old reading, allowing my brain to come up with the scenery and settings and nurturing that form of creativity has been great. Of course, jobs come in and I’ll need to source mood imagery so jump back into various sites, but ultimately, I think a lot of my inspiration comes from nature, and by that I mean the physics of nature. How objects move with energy and friction and how every action has a reaction etc.

Growth
Growth

990 Any advice for keeping ahead of the curve?

James It sounds cliché nowadays, but to stay hungry. Always looking at one’s weak spots and improving upon them. You may be the best key-frame wizard on this side of town, but if you don’t understand color theory, then read up on that and apply that knowledge to your next project. Knowing one subject matter to its n’th degree is how great artists remain great, sure, but let’s face it, we can’t all be the best in the world. So why don’t we learn to master other sides of the game too.

990 What other professions would you see yourself in if you were to move on or maybe had chosen another path?

James Carpentry. I really enjoyed working with wood and tools when I was younger. One day I’ll return to it, but right now I’m happy burning my eyes out staring at screens all day.

…staying hungry to learn and expanding into other areas. This industry is standing still, so why should you?

990 Any productivity applications you use to organize or make your workflow easier?

James Honestly, stickie’s or Post-it notes. They’re so quick to jot down ideas or tasks and great to remove when the said task is done. No app can beat that feeling for me personally.

990 If you could give your younger self some advice. What would that be?

James To learn better techniques for making and storing memories. The brain is a huge muscle and so like any muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it. The same is true for storing and recalling upon memories, if you learn good habits and keep doing them, they become easy and can only benefit you later on down the line.

990 So much has changed in the creative industries. We now see cross-pollination of industries and creative disciplines. Where do you see the industry going in the next few years?

James I like the cross-pollination of industries, no one likes sitting on their own at the party. I think the more crossover we have with industries like aerial photography or data analysis for examples the more fun and interesting the future of our industry will be.

990 Do you have any interest in other emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality, etc?

James I’m waiting to see what happens with all of this. It’s something I haven’t had much experience with and so I’m still on the fence for now. I’m open to it, and I’m sure it’s going to impact our world in a very big way, but right now, I’m waiting this one out.

990 PC or Mac? 😉

James Both. I used to be all about Mac but nowadays it just makes sense to be across both. Whatever you need to get the job done really.

990 Any last piece of life or career advice you can give to those just starting out?

James Get involved in social media, it’s a great way to meet people and learn from one another but don’t let it get in the way of self-learning. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of checking Instagram every hour waiting for that artist’s new posting or wondering why your post hasn’t had 1,000 likes. Who cares? If likes were dollars, then sure, care and care a lot, but they aren’t, or at least until you have millions of followers.

Dust
Dust

Thank you so much James! Make sure you visit his portfolio site http://jamesowen.co and see some his amazing work or his workshop with some of his experimental projects. Also follow him on Twitter. (@_james_owen_)

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990adjustments

I am a motion designer & developer based out of South Florida. When not designing or animating pixels, I wrangle some code. If all else fails, I watch Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, or Three's Company reruns.