Billy Brooks

Visual Effects Artist for the Star Wars films, X-Men 2, and yes, Puss In Boots

The Interview

“With this machine…the cuffs are off.”

Visual Effects Artist and Producer Billy Brooks shares with us his inspiring story of achieving his childhood dream of creating the special effects for the Star Wars films.

The Beginning

A childhood dream

For me and probably a lot of other visual effects artists, it’s Star Wars of course. In 1977, as a kid of 11 I think or 10, I can’t remember. But going to the theater, seeing that movie, going back another 13 times after that and when I came out of the movie theater the very first time that I saw Star Wars, I said to my mom, that’s what I want to do for a living.

As a kid, I would build models, instead of playing with toys because the toys that came out for the Star Wars by Kenner I think, they were all disproportionate and looked completely wrong and I knew that as a kid and that attention to detail inspired me to actually get the model kits instead. So I’d build the model kits because they were actually proportioned correctly and play with those instead of the actual toys that you’d get in the store.

It was 1983 and I got a job at a video store, and that’s when video stores didn’t exist. It was like one of the first ones, it had beta and VHS and very few movies but eventually they started getting video cameras in and they’d let me borrow them, so I’d start doing video movies and most of the time, they were effects heavy video movies.

So doing in camera kind of effects and for school, I’d make an excuse to do some kind of school project that would shoehorn it in to be able to do a video. I think one was a time capsule, I think that was the very first one that I did. Everybody else in the class did paper machete or like documents and images and stuff and I actually did a video and no one else did that. I put visual effects in there that weren’t necessary, but I did it because I got my hands on the medium.

When I came out of the movie theater the very first time that I saw Star Wars, I said to my mom, that’s what I want to do for a living.

The Beginning

A lifetime passion

While I was in college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I met a friend whose brother was working at Industrial Light and Magic. He was the model shot supervisor for Star Trek First Contact, and he had just finished working on the Enterprise E, and he asked me if I wanted to come see it and I was like, yes, I do.

Yes, I talked about it for ten years, about coming to California, because I had never been to see him in northern California and I did and I ride to the airport, I’m like, oh my gosh, this is is so cool, San Francisco. We’re driving to [Inaudible: 02:28] County and we stop by ILM on a Sunday. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it. We get there, it’s just this industrial park, nondescript, kind of boring, and it was a Sunday. There was only one person working and he was building some kind of like rock sculptures in the parking lot, painting stuff.

So it reminds me of that scene in Willy Wonka where he opens the door to the chocolate factory and seriously, do you see the goosebumps? Because he opened the door and it was the model shop and it was covered; every inch of this room, which was really big, covered with models from—I saw the hoverboards from Back to the Future, the house from Death Becomes Her. The Scoleri Brothers from Ghostbusters. The Enterprise there, the Borg sphere was there, and I literally could not process what I was seeing because it was so amazing.

That trip led to an interview that got a job three days after that, and a month after that, they moved me from North Carolina to California and that’s when I started my career at ILM.

Achieving the Dream

R2D2’s Brooks Propulsion Units

The career highlight for me at ILM was my work with R2D2. I got the real R2D2 at my desk and he was there for about a month and I’m not talking this Sharper Image stuff. It was the real deal, sitting at my desk, for a month, and here we go again but he was there, and I needed reference. I was modeling so I was taking measurements and stuff, but he was sitting there at my desk for a month and every time everybody would come in in the morning, they’d rub R2D2’s head for luck. It was kind of a stupid thing but it’s R2D2 but I was able to own R2D2 for that whole movie.

I designed how he walked up stairs because that was something that came out of the blue. George said, we wanted to save the flying gag for the end of the movie because initially, he was supposed to fly over this bridge but George wanted him to walk up the stairs instead. To save the surprise for the end of the movie for the flying and I sat there for about two days playing with my toy, trying to figure out how R2D2 walks up stairs because he doesn’t really do that.

So then I figured out how to use his middle leg to sort of hop and climb up stairs, and then I had a review with George and I called something the Kenny Baker shuffle where he kind of waddles. The actor would do this kind of thing in the suit so I actually did the same thing in NCG to give it that life and I called it the Kenny Baker shuffle, and I actually got him to say it in the review because I said, “Yeah, I put the Kenny Baker shuffle in there” and George is like, “Yes, I like the Kenny Baker shuffle” and I’m like, yes! But that was one of the cool moments for me.

I designed the rocket mechanisms for the legs that come out when he flies, and in books, that has my name on it. Those rockets were actually named after me in reference books and in the mythos, they’re actually called Brooks Propulsion Units which is, again, a geek fantasy.

What I try to achieve with my work is realism, and if someone says, what did you do here, that is like the best compliment you could ever say to a visual effects artist.

The Software

Nuke, LightWave, and After Effects

The core software that I like to play with is Nuke. I use that at work and I like using it outside of work too, to explore how to push the boundaries of 2D and 3D because Nuke has a lot of 3D functionality where you can put—you can have an actual camera and you can put cards and 3D space. You can do camera moves and without having to jump into an actual 3D package, you can do quick iterations by having it within your compositing software.

The other core package I like to use is Lightwave and the reason being is that I’ve actually used that since its inception. So I’ve used it for twenty years I guess, god I’m old, but for twenty years. I know it really well and I’m very fast in it, and I think familiarity can be with any software that you prefer but mine is Lightwave. I know Maya, I know lots and lots of different softwares, but Lightwave is my go to 3D app. After Effects is another compositing package that I use a lot simply because of familiarity and because I’ve been using that one since the mid 90s as well.

The Hardware

The cuffs are off

A while back I got my hands on a Mediaworkstations i-X. It has the GTX video card in it and it is smoking. I love this machine. It allows me to not be afraid to push the limits of what I can do because a lot of times, you just know you can’t do a certain thing so your machine can’t do it. It goes too slow so you just avoid it because your experience says, I can’t do that so I’m going to try to fake it or work around it. With this machine, I can just—the cuffs are off.

All of the stuff is not lost on me as to how fortunate and what an awesome thing this is, and I’m so appreciative for the opportunity to be able to do that because it’s my dream come true.

The Product

i-X: Recommended Hardware for Lightwave, After Effects & Maya

Billy’s i-X Mediaworkstation is our fastest workstation for Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro, and fastest workstation for Autodesk Maya, 3dsMax and Lightwave. In addition to Nuke, Lightwave and Maya, Billy’s also an avid user of OctaneRender for GPU rendering, which his i-X is optimized for.