Interview with Craig Tonks

Craig Tonks is a Senior / Lead VFX Artist from the UK with 7 years of industry experience. He likes to work with Houdini and Nuke.

What led you into the CGI/3D? Tell us your story.

I’ve always followed what i enjoy doing at the time and seeing where that leads. I dropped out of studying Physics, Chemistry and Math at school when i realised it wasnt for me – i’d always avoided arts subjects at school as i felt studying and being graded on something creative was the opposite of what art was about in the first place.

In hindsight that was pretty stupid. So when i dropped out i was desperate to do something more creative, and by this point i had already been dabbling with photography and photo manipulation. I joined a Multi-Media course at Oaklands College that allowed me to explore creatively accross mediums – we developed camera film, made screen prints, created stop motion animation and used 3d / 2d software too.

At this stage i saw CGI as the best way to combine all the skills i had and moved onto a course titled Animation and Intractive Media at the University of Gloucestershire. Similar to college i had a huge blank canvas that i could explore which i think is the key to becoming a good artist; experiencing things, however unrelated they may seem at the time, gives you so much to creatively call upon later in your career.

I failed a few modules but when this course ended i immediately moved onto a Masters degree in Digital Effects at the University of Bournemouth, which has been a huge source of talent for the VFX industry for years. It’s a fantasitc course that really pushes you, and i learned a huge amounts from it. However i managed to fail half of the course and struggled to get work directly after the course finished. Over the next year i re-focused on what i’d learnt, what i enjoyed and what i was good at; this resulted in making a stronger showreel of FX that were simplified yet showed i could create highly art directed work. This then got made into a Training video for an online training company and FINALLY i got a job in the industry!

Where do you go to get inspired? What/Who inspires you?

I think inspiration can come from anywhere and especially appears when you arent looking for it, so i’m a huge fan of just absorbing everything around me. I guess i indulge any interests rather than search out inspiration directly. I have an ever growing collection of Visual Books (Art Of’s, Photography, Science) and enjoy plenty Games / TV / Film like most artists. But i mainly love to go out on trips unrelated to anything i’m doing – we’re very lucky in the UK to have such a rich history so theres always places to visit like Castles, Museums and Nature Sites. Its often the places you least expect that offer up amazing inspiration. I also LOVE horror, so i watch and read as much as possible.

How does a typical working day look like?

I’ll usually be tackling the highest priority tasks i have lined up, providing support for more junior artists and balancing the admin side of things (Meetings, Feedback, Reviews etc..)

What does your workplace look like?

Whichever studio i work at my desks usually the same; Some odd trinkets picked up on travels, A Lamp, A bunch of notepads, a Wacom tablet and various mugs! I like to have some sort of personal items around as it makes your work area more personal and sparks up all sorts of random conversations, which is great to get to know people.

How do you stay motivated in this tough industry?

I think the key is to manage yourself well. Balancing the needs of the project versus your own wellbeing is paramount, so stand up for yourself and set boundaries where you can. Give yourself enough treats and personal time – little breaks, walks outside and going to the gym all help refresh and get me refocused on the job at hand. Going to the gym in particular has been a huge part of my life lately, its amazing for clearing your head and feeling better.

What is your passion beside CGI/3D?

I’ve always loved Photography so i’m never happier than with a camera in hand, and as i drive theres so many places that are easy to travel to for a good days photography. I also love music and play Guitar, though sometimes neglect it for too long if i’m honest!

How do you keep your portfolio up to date? Any tips?

It can be surprisingly tricky. I try and keep some sort of spread sheet with jobs and tasks / shots i work on as if you try and remember a year on its very tough to remember it all. Then remember to request your work for showreel use however your company dictates. Past that its just a case of making some time to put it together. I enjoy changing showreels up with new music / shots / orders so i’ll often do so when i’ve got some good new shots to put in.

What Software do you use to create your artwork?

Primarily Houdini and Nuke for most things.

What Software do you want to learn in future? And why?

I’ve recently been working in realtime / VR so i’m enjoying looking into new developments on that front. Unreal Engine has been great so far and i’m eager to learn it deeper.

Which books would you recommend to the read?

I’ve been going through much H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft lately and would recomend to anyone. I also recently worked on Annihilation so read the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer,

What music do you listen to while working?

Always varies on mood! I often like soundtracks, especially Hans Zimmer ones, but some days just need a tonne of Iron Maiden!

Any advice for new Artists?

Take Care of Yourself! Being an artist can be tough and full of outside pressure, so make sure you keep your mind and body in the best shape possible. Avoid offering your whole life for the needs of projects too; the more easily you give up your free time the more it will get taken, so be flexible but set boundaries.