Visual Effects Artist and Cinematographer Jeff Unay talks about how he finds creative inspiration.
Computer Animation grad Jeff Unay, known for his groundbreaking work on films like King Kongand Avatar, is an award-winning visual effects artist turned cinematographer who, next month, will be inducted into Full Sail's Seventh Annual Hall of Fame.
As we described in a previous feature, Jeff's professional career (which now spans more than 14 years) kicked off with a position at Raven Software in Madison, Wisconsin, where he worked on the popular first-person shooter game Quake 4. After that he moved to Berkeley, California’s Tippet Studio (Hellboy, Catwoman), and then to New Zealand’s Weta Digital, where he worked as a Facial Team Lead (King Kong, Avatar), and finally to the Seattle-based Valve Corporation, where he’s worked on a variety of games as well as on the critically lauded documentary Free to Play. Most recently, he’s taken a leave of absence at Valve to work on an independent project – Greywater, a feature-length nonfiction film supported by the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Institute.
Listed straightforwardly, with no context, it’s a portfolio worthy of at least a good deal of respect by his industry peers. Zoom in on the details, however, on the little in-between moments that never make it into credit lists, and you’ll see an individual whose persevering creativity and strategic innovation are worthy of admiration by artists of any medium.
The real journey started not in Madison, but in the modest, rural town of Ethel, Louisiana. His family members worked in the medical field, and his friends were into agriculture and other traditional pursuits – and so Jeff, an artist from moment he first grasped a crayon, got used to being the one who did things just a little differently. In high school, even the football coaches noticed this creativity, and they asked him to create banners for the team and murals to line the walls of the school.
Jeff went on to attain a bachelor’s in Advertising from New Orleans’ Loyola University, and then in 2001 moved to Florida to attend Full Sail University. Again, he found himself as somewhat of an outsider, but this time for a completely different and less-thrilling reason.
“I remember being in my first 3D modeling class,” he says. “There was a booklet and a handful of instructions. I remember being somewhere maybe three or four pages in, going, ‘Gosh, this is kind of complicated.’ I looked at everyone’s screens and they were so many steps ahead of me.”
“At that moment, I remember having my own little inner panic attack. That’s when I decided, ‘It’s go time. I’m not only going to get this little tutorial, but I’m going to do it two times when I get home, and then I’m going to do it by memory.’”
He recalls feeling intimidated again later, in a character modeling class. “I started looking at what everyone was doing online and I loved the art. I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, how do these guys do this?’ Their anatomy was great, and it looked like there was so much classical training that I just didn’t feel I was ready for or could compete with.”
But instead of attempting to compete or tag along in their footsteps, Jeff chose a less-traveled route. “Everyone was creating these really clean and simple models. Great silhouettes, but they were generally pretty simple. I thought maybe there was a gap there.”
“I started creating incredibly detailed models, to the point where I’d never seen anyone do this before, at least not in 3D. That was my angle. These guys might have been better in anatomy than I was, but I knew I could create something different by the time I graduated.”
With just three months left of school, Jeff headed over to San Antonio, TX to attend the annual SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference. “I had four models in my demo reel, and copied them to VHS tapes. So I had a backpack full of VHS tapes, and was walking around SIGGRAPH and going to each of the booths.”
He dropped one off at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the company owned by George Lucas, thinking it was a long shot – but a few days later, he received a call. “I thought someone was prank calling me, I really did,” he says now, still incredulous.
Jeff went to the ILM interview; he recalls their surprise upon learning that he was still a student with only eight months of training. His choice to wander off the beaten path, and to demonstrate this choice in his demo reel, had obviously served him well. (After a gap in time he was eventually offered a position at ILM, but declined due to the fact that he’d just accepted a job elsewhere.)
Over the next decade and a half, from Quake 4 to Avatar and everything in between, Jeff has worked earnestly to expand his skill set while always keeping in mind his first path to success: find the gap, and then fill it.
“The through line is pretty simple,” he explains. “And I truly believe anyone can do this. It’s just a matter of knowing an industry, of really doing your research in whatever medium you’re working in, until you know it up and down. And then look for the gaps. Look for things that people aren’t doing.”
“If everyone is kind of trending one way and I notice there’s an opportunity to maybe go another route, to me, that’s where I get my most creative inspiration. I’m doing something a little bit different – not better, just different. And hopefully by doing that, you can add to the overall discussion.”
Jeff accomplished this tenfold on Avatar, in which his team’s never-before-seen visual effects captured the attention of experts around the world – starting, believe it or not, with the film’s director and producer James Cameron.
Jeff describes an early meeting with Cameron: “We started rolling out some of the shots for him. I remember him looking at the shots I’d consider a little easier, and he was completely blown away, like, ‘Oh my God. She looks so real and he looks so real.’ You could see it in his eyes. I remember him saying, ‘This is going to work.’”
A few years later at Valve, Jeff again broke new ground while filming Free to Play, a documentary about the competitors of the first million-dollar international game tournament. Asked to obtain footage for a brief recap of the event, Jeff returned with enough material for a full-length, character-driven feature that even The Washington Post claimed offered "the potential to raise the profile of e-sports."
And now, as he works diligently on his newest project Greywater, Jeff continues to innovate and impress. The nonfiction film, which follows a blue-collar family man (and part-time cage fighter) named Joe, is shot with a kind of subtle intimacy that has elicited awe from Jeff's film industry peers. His unique style has already earned the support of the Sundance Institute, The Tribeca Film Festival, and ESPN, among others. Greywater is expected to be released in 2017.
One wonders how Jeff has found success in so many different areas of the industry. He puts it simply, with a humble shrug. "It's all art."
"When I look at filmmaking or sculpting or anything," he says, "I think it's all pretty much the same if you really break it down. When you're a kid, you have a piece of paper and you have four corners to fill. So you draw the ground, and you draw a house, and then you draw a tree and the sun. You're learning composition. When you look at photography, it's the same thing. You're just filling four corners of an image. You're composing and trying to tell a story."
"In cinematography, it's just moving images. You're trying to get the right silhouettes and shapes to tell a story. Even in 3D sculpting or traditional sculpting ... you have larger forms in clay, and then you just strip it away and then it reveals what it wants to be. To me, it all pretty much like, plugs into the same part of my brain."
"Yeah," he chuckles. "It's all art."