Gastown is often surprizing in the most wonderful ways. Like a magican pulling rabbits from a hat, the neighbourhood is home to a burrow of artists that keep appearing one after another from a realtively small space.
John Baer; Head of Studio and Executive Producer at Pixomondo in Gastown leads his pack through tunnels of immense creativity where together they have produced work on some of the hottest shows on TV.
With offices in three different continents, Pixomondo is dominating the visual effects playing field, exploring unseen digital realms where few may dare to go. In 2001, Thilo Kuther; CEO and Executive Producer founded Pixomondo in Frankfurt. The company took on large-scale projects for international industry clients and made a move into feature film visual. Under Thilo’s guidance and creative vision, Pixomondo expanded worldwide to set up a network over three continents with facilities in the United States, Europe and Asia. In October 2016, John Baer came to Gastown from LA to set up shop, hire a bunch of artists and make some serious digital magic happen.
Since Season 2, Pixomondo has worked intensively on Game of Thrones – most notably in the current rendering of Deneris’ adult dragons. In Gastown, Mr Baer has brought his team all the way to the bigs – they have been nominated for their work on Fear The Walking Dead (the prequel to The Walking Dead) in which all of last season’s effects were produced in their compact studio here on Water St.
We met with John to find out how he’s settling into the neighbourhood and how Pixomondo Gastown is becoming one of the most influential visual effects houses in Western Canada.
Tell me a little about how you began working in visual effects?
I had always been interested in movies and as a kid, myself and my friends would make stories come to life on my chunky 80’s VHS camcorder. Growing up in Midwestern Ohio, a movie career wasn’t something that was all that readily accessible. My parents were always supportive of whatever I wanted to do but eventually the ‘maybe it’s time get a real job’ idea won out and I ended up initially attending college to study chemical engineering. But after a year of chemical engineering and some serious soul searching I realized I needed to pursue that childhood interest if I wanted to be happy and in the end graduated with a BFA in Electronic Media. One thing led to another and out of persistence, determination and some luck, I found myself working as a producer’s assistant to Michael Bay (director of Transformers, Armageddon, Bad Boys, Pearl Harbour which were all big budget movies). With Michael I learned all there is to know about how to produce a movie. I discovered a golden rule of success in any field – find out what it is you enjoy doing and keep learning everything about it. Someday, if the stars align in your favour, and there are no guarantees of course, you might just find yourself in a position to do what you love and make a living from it. It was on Transformers 3: Dark of The Moon that I had the opportunity to explore doing some serious visual effects on a large complex scale. I worked postproduction on the film and was very involved working closely with clients like Digital Domain and ILM. I saw the way ahead – both for myself and where the movie business was heading. I realized once again that learning everything about visual effects would secure me a solid future in the entertainment industry.
You recently relocated from LA to Vancouver to head Pixomondo’s new studio location here in Gastown.
When I started with Pixomondo I was able to marry the knowledge I had gained working as a producer with my knowledge of visual effects and this allowed me to create a lot of wonderful things with the company. In LA I helped develop a television department that started with one show and a $30,000 budget. Before I left to setup Gastown, our LA TV department had grown to 6 shows and a 7-figure budget. At that point Pixomondo was being asked to create greater Canadian bandwidth with the intention of expanding our reach. We were considering opening another Toronto location or setting up in Montreal. After a lot of research we decided Vancouver had the greatest potential for growth and Gastown had everything our creative team would need. We opened the office here in October of 2016 and have been growing steadily. We will be expanding soon at our current address and taking over the top two floors of our building.
What has it been like working in Gastown? Would you say the neighbourhood is a creative hive for your industry?
When a business is looking for a place to setup and they arrive in Vancouver, right off bat the obvious choice is Gastown. The visual effects industry is a highly competitive market for talent. There is more work that needs to done than the city can provide the talent for. We have to be an interesting environment for people to want to work in. There are plenty of great options available to attract new talent – ILM, Zoic and many others. What Pixomondo can offer that perhaps other companies can’t is a work culture based on a high-end boutique model where we produce really great work with a small crew. If you look around Gastown you can see the same thing in different industries – high end boutique coffee shops like Timbertrain and Buro as well as independent restaurants and retail stores. This neighbourhood represents a unique way of thinking and creating things that is not like a factory with an I’m just gonna get it done and over with mentality. When you add up everything about Gastown – the location and accessibility with transit, the food and coffee culture, the vibe, the huge amount of creativity going all the time and even the aesthetic of the century old building we’re in and the cobblestone streets – all of this makes working in Gastown, especially for artists, a very desirable place to be.
Do you like working in Gastown?
I love working in Gastown. Coming from LA, I believed there was no other city on earth more diverse. I think I was wrong. When I came to Vancouver and especially to Gastown, the culture and diversity that I experienced here was nothing short of incredible. It really is a cool neighbourhood.
You worked on The Walking Dead as visual effects producer. What was that experience like for you?
The Walking Dead was a blast! I worked on Seasons 5 and 6 and it’s one of the best shows on TV. They shot both those seasons on Super 16mm film which is a very difficult medium to work with when trying to create visual effects. The experience was challenging but turned out to be rewarding in many ways. Plus, it looks awesome to have all those zombies on your reel.
Can you tell us about a particularly memorable project?
After Transformers I got a job with Digital Domain and worked on GI Joe Retaliation and Disney’s Maleficent. Most of my work there was on Maleficent – two and a half years worth. A lot of what was created for that movie had not been done before. There was a big research component to the movie as it called for highly technical work and not just standard visual effects. Being so closely involved and working at a level with artists that were capable of going to that next level of R&D had a huge impact on me and I learned so much during that production.
What’s new for Pixomondo? Any interesting projects that you are working on right now?
Since we’ve been in Gastown we’ve worked on Fast & Furious 8, The Dark Tower, Fear The Walking Dead along with Star Trek Discovery and a few others. Pixomondo has a lot of great projects in the works right now. In our studio here we’re working on a couple of really exciting pilots that will be making their way to TV and streaming services in the next 6 months. The 2018 VES Awards (Visual Effects Society) just released this years nominations and I’m happy to say that 16 people in the company have been given nods and the Gastown studio has been nominated for our work on Fear The Walking Dead (the prequel to The Walking Dead) in which all of last season’s effects were produced here. Phillip Nussbaumer was named on the award and a few of us will be going to LA in February. We’re up against some pretty stiff competition including shows like Black Sails and Vikings. The category is Best Visual Effects in a Supporting Photo Reel Episode. This award is to honor the achievement of the visual effects within a single episode of a photo reel (i.e., live action) episodic broadcast series where the visual effects are a visible, essential, and integral part of the story and play a principal and active role in the show. It should be a lot of fun!
When John is not busy making awesome visual effects he can be found spending time with his wife and daughter, furthering his education and life experience as a certified emergency medical technician, or scaling a rugged glaciated peak somewhere far away from civilization.