VFX Pro Joseph Lawson Talks about the Visual Effects in ‘On Fire’

Joseph Lawson has been in the field of Visual Effects for over 20 years, with credits on iconic movies and shows like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Star Trek: Enterprise, and many films from The Asylum (the Sharknado series). The father-son team at Lawson Digital Arts bring us their latest work with On Fire (dir. Peter Facinelli & Nick Lyon), a thriller inspired by true events about a family escaping from a raging forest fire. With the movie in theaters nationwide, we sat down with Joseph to talk about visual effects.

P: Congrats on On Fire‘s reception! We’re looking forward to seeing it on the big screen.
J: Thanks so much! We’re proud to be part of On Fire using ProductionCrate elements as part of our VFX toolkit!

P: The VFX team for On Fire was relatively small for a feature-length, natural disaster movie; What kind of challenges did this present? Were there any benefits?
J: My son and I are probably the only father-son VFX team I know of in the world.  We have a lot of experience tag-teaming and working with each others strengths to make shows like On Fire come together.   We’re also hyper organized which helps us do a lot more than average. Tons of lower budget film experiences has taught us how to leverage budgets to make things look like more than the budget by the time folks experience them. As a director myself it’s possible to know what helps organically tell the film-maker’s story in a way that integrates visually without being too much VFX flashy. Ideally most folks won’t always realize we’re there at all. The biggest challenge was going from what was a project with 150 planned to 389 delivered shots.  A lot of fire effects planned for on set came to us out of genuine safety concerns. Fortunately we have a robust internal pipeline and organizational setup using ShotGrid that enables us to do a project of this scope.  The producers also gave us a generous amount of time to do the work.  The benefit of our two-person team (with some tracking/matte help from Joseph’s friend Elijah Morrow) is we have the visual shorthand and shared respect to trust each other with any task.

P: What made you want to pursue visual effects? What was your gateway to working professionally?

J: When I was 12 living in Okinawa I was a huge Star Trek fan. Some friends and I did Super 8mm short films so I knew I wanted to be a director. Doing our special effects got me hooked on that. Silent Running, Space:1999 and Star Wars, of course, confirmed my life goals. After a career in broadcasting radio and television including commercials with effects and being a weather announcer, I started a graphics business that did animation in Montana using LightWave 3D. I married my darling Kelly then got a job on Roughneck’s: The Starship Troopers Chronicles at the legendary Foundation Imaging (Babylon 5, Hypernauts).  This brought us to Valencia, California where we raised our son and daughter while I worked for various studios over almost two decades.  That included everything from The Global Asylum as VFX supervisor for seven years (and directing five of their movies) to Rhythm & Hues plus Digital Domain and so many great places and projects. With over 200 IMDB listings and growing it’s hard to give them all individual proper credit due.

P: What do you consider the biggest sea change in the time that you’ve worked as a VFX Artist/Supervisor?
J: There have been so many changes but one huge one is the availability of tools to a wide range of artist.  The hardware has gotten faster and cheaper, the software more capable and the availability of tools like ProductionCrate that provide elements and more to we creators quickly via internet makes it possible for us to create from anywhere there’s adequate speedy connection like our place here on the North Coast of Oregon.  And it’s all only getting better for those with tools, talent and desire to create.

P: What made Blender & After Effects the ideal tools for creating the VFX in On Fire?
J: Blender has become a perfect tool for freelance and boutique shops looking for a wide range of ever growing/improving capabilities.  We still leverage other software like LightWave when needed.  After Effects has always worked well for us and since we have so much experience; So many presets and plug-ins, it’s hard to change.  With AE’s color capabilities coming of age during On Fire we were able to integrate elements better than ever before.

P: Were there any lessons learned while working on a project like On Fire? Were there any unexpected hurdles?
J: Every show has its unique challenges, and for On Fire it was having to integrate so much fire into practical footage that was initially planned for live on set. We couldn’t do that because the forest floor was tinder-dry, forcing us to do even the smaller fire work in post.  That was also the biggest unexpected hurdle along with a lot of invisible effects like clocks, monitor screens, crew paint outs.  It was a long post period for a reason!

P: Which shot/sequence are you most excited for people to see?
J: The family fire chase sequence is pretty scary cool narrative and works.  A lot of my sons 100 percent CG shots are fantastic throughout the movie. I’m so proud of the artist he’s grown to be since starting almost a decade ago at age 14. That’s all him! He has an astounding future!

P: Did working on shots set mostly at night present any unique obstacles?
J: It actually made our job easier, especially because Chris Wilks and his stunt/effects team (along with the amazing lighting crew) set up some fantastic light sources to dramatically tell the director Nick Lyon’s and writer Ron Peer’s story.  We added the fires where needed and motivated by them. The main challenge it caused was tracking and lots of roto.  TONS of roto.  The lady on fire sequence was one of the toughest for both yet most of it integrates well.  Scary stuff.

P: What are your favorite VFX shots/sequences that you didn’t work on?
J: My favorite sequence Joseph worked on were some CG point-of-view shots during a family driving sequence.  The burning buildings and trees are all CG with a mix of fire and spark elements including ProductionCrate selling it.

P: Who are the masters you looked-up to and learned from?
J: Of course, we all stand on the shoulders of giants and my inspirations are decidedly old school names.  So many hardworking TV and movie artists but especially Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumbull, Brian Johnson, Greg Jein, and John Dykstra’s whole ILM team from Star Wars. Then computer pioneer and later friends Ron Thornton, Adam Mojo Leibowitz, Mark Kochinski, Glenn Campbell and SO many other great coworkers who always inspired me with how much better they were and gracious to all me to learn from.  Too many great folks to list here.  I continue to be humbled and learn from them all even now.

P: Most movie audiences only see the end product and not what it used to look like; what are some common VFX responsibilities that most viewers wouldn’t even think about that need to be done?
J: Pre-visualization, shot choreography and design, database set-up and organization and shot progress/delivery tracking, plate downloads, preview and final uploads, thumbnail captures, timeline scrubbing, bidding, prep, tracking, roto, invisible/clean up effects, deciding on elements, prepping things like frame rates, outputs and color space in compositing, plug-in management, constantly learning new software updates and plug-ins, working with clients, zoom calls, invoices, taxes, our own IT work, storage and disk space management, keeping up on hardware and software… and much more like having a family life!

P: Do you have any wisdom for aspiring visual effects artists?
J: Learn your craft.  Love your chosen field.  Follow your passion with all your heart.  Appreciate what time and resources you have to do the best you can for any given project then forgive yourself enough so as to learn what to do better next time.  Build friendships.  Be reliable.  Under-promise, over deliver, be fair and be pleasant enough that people WANT to work with you again.  Have fun!  Otherwise why are we in this at all?

P: How/where/when can people support On Fire?
J: On Fire is in theatres nationwide! We’re proud to have helped the fantastic teams of artists and actors who gave their art, talents and passion honoring first responders and acknowledging the toll of real world tragedy with this heartfelt emotional family story.