Interview with Henry LaBounta
Henry LaBounta has been animating digital effects for over 20 years. Most recently he art directed ‘SSX3’ for Electronic Arts Canada where he is currently working as Studio Art Director. Prior to this he supervised visual effects at PDI/DreamWorks for the Steven Spielberg film “Minority Report”. Other recent film credits include “A.I.”, “Mission Impossible 2” and “Forces of Nature”. LaBounta joined DreamWorks in 1996 to supervise the climactic Red Sea sequence in “The Prince of Egypt”. Before joining DreamWorks he worked at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) on many feature films including “Twister”, “Casper” and “Star Trek VII Generations.” In 1996, LaBounta was nominated for an Academy Award for designing the look and techniques for the tornadoes and related effects on “Twister.” In the same year, he was awarded the BAFTA (British Academy Award) for his work on that film. Prior to working at ILM, LaBounta did award-winning broadcast and commercial work in New York and Atlanta. He is a panelist for the SIGGRAPH 2005 Special Session: Jump! Shout! Dance! Sing! (An Interactive Conversation About Games, Game Art, and Play That Goes Way Beyond the Joystick.)
What inspired you to pursue a career in the visual effects department?
My interest in creating art with technology took me into this business. It was really exciting to be exploring these things in the very early days as new imagery and techniques became possible. There were no degrees or even courses in CG work when I was in school but luckily I focused on Art and Computer Science which fit together very nicely in CG. Although my real passion is fine art, I like the fact that so many people all over the world have seen my work on popular films, TV programs and now games.
Since your early work on Baby's Day Out and Star Trek: Generations, how has working in the film industry changed?
It has changed a lot, especially since '84 when I was doing CG for Broadcast TV. We were just developing and learning a lot of the techniques back then; it was pretty exciting to see reflection mapping and many other techniques for the first time at SIGGRAPH. It was harder to estimate work because many projects involved things we had never done before. The business is more predictable now but using visual effects has also become much more common place. Visual Effects is a commodity business now, you have to be aggressive about outbidding the competitor who is willing to do it below cost. I miss the days when it was more about 'wow, you can do that, I never imagined that possible'.
What have you enjoyed most about working in visual effects?
It's a very creative industry, the ability to create something no one has ever seen before is very rewarding. Bringing the imagination of filmmakers to the screen and helping invent the way to do it has made every minute very interesting and challenging.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Early on, there were a lot of big technical challenges, if you wanted to do something new you had to invent a way to do it yourself. My favourite part now is getting inside the head of a director and getting at the essence of what they are imagining, and delivering visuals that go beyond that.
What has been your favorite project thus far?
I've been so fortunate to be involved in so many great projects, it's hard to say. Professionally 'Twister' was a great project for me but I think the one of the best films I worked on was 'Minority Report'. Creatively, I prefer the latitude you get in games; 'SSX3' was very challenging because there was a lot more work involved in it than in films (where the production designer and DP make most of the creative choices).
How has your experience with visual effects in film carried over into the video game industry?
It has been surprisingly similar in some ways, but different in ways I didn't expect. Both use CG but I think the education I got in the film industry has allowed me to look at visual quality in a way that is very different to the game industry. I've been able to use a lot of what I learned in film for games and especially now, with next generation games, I have a clear idea of where we could go visually. After a while, it might be interesting to take what I've learned in games back to film -- cross-pollination is a beautiful thing -- I always encourage people to challenge themselves in unexpected ways.
What new trends do you see in video game development?
Open worlds have been a trend for a while. You'll see less level-based games in which game play is interrupted as you load a level/track/mission each time. Every year the visuals get better. There's still a lot of room for improvement but EA enjoys the highest Metacritic ratings in the industry. I look forward to deeper integration of the visuals with game play. I think we've only scratched the surface here.
What are you looking forward to as a panelist for the Jump! Shout! Dance! Sing! special session?
This is a very interesting and diverse group of panelists. I look forward to learning something new from my colleagues; SIGGRAPH is always great for that!
Do you have any favorite CG mentors?
I've learned so much from so many people over the years it would probably be unfair to single out any one person.
What year/city did you first attend SIGGRAPH?
1984 in Minneapolis, it was the single best thing I could have done for my career and I was really thrilled to be part of it.
What was your first contribution to SIGGRAPH?
Early on, I contributed a lot to user groups such as Wavefront and even Bosch FGS 4000 (for the old timers), I forget the exact dates. I've also had pieces in the Electronic Theatre and participated in local SIGGRAPH chapters in NY, Atlanta, SF, LA and Vancouver.
What contributions to SIGGRAPH are you most proud of?
I really enjoyed doing the 'SSX3' presentation last year. I tried to focus more on creative challenges and I'm hoping SIGGRAPH can find a way to include that more in the future. This has always been a very technical conference but as the technology stabilizes, the challenges now are more about 'how do I use the power of CG creatively?'
What was your favorite part of last year's SIGGRAPH?
I was surprised to see such a big emphasis on real-time graphics -- games are playing a much bigger role in SIGGRAPH now.
What future developments in CG do you look forward to?
When are they going to make the 'make it look good' button? It's been amusing how people outside the industry think that you just put film into the computers and they automatically make these great images, yeah right! I look forward to seeing CG art become refined to the point where it can be compared to other more mature media like print advertising. Right now, many of the images created with CG are sometimes technically impressive but rarely visually outstanding. I think we're close to a point where the technical challenges will settle down and more emphasis can be placed on the art of creating great images. I'm encouraged by some of the great work we see coming from students in art schools.