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Spotlight: Aaron Burns, from intern to VFX supervisor

Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 11:35am

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Simon K Jones

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In this age of digital filmmaking there is an steady progression of talent from the world of ‘amateur’ home movies to the big leagues, with skills learnt on no-budget DIY productions translating more and more directly into vital career qualifications. Recently we spoke to Aaron ‘Cantaclaro’ Burns about how he found himself as a visual effects supervisor at Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Digital Studios.

Veteran users will remember Cantaclaro as a regular contributor to many a discussion on the forums and a familiar face in the chat room., back in the heady days of our first compositing application ‘Chromanator’. It was 2004 and Aaron was looking to the future and how to kick start his career.

Looking for the break

As usual, there was only one place to start: at the bottom. Being a life-long resident of Austin, Texas meant that Aaron was already in a good position, with the city host to a wealth of creative media outlets from films to games to music. “Austin is an incredible town, and a real bastion of creativity. I’ve travelled all over the world and this town is still my favourite.” Getting a job as an intern at Troublemaker Studios wasn’t too difficult – after all, anybody can make the coffee and run errands – but moving on up would be the real challenge. “While I knew people in the industry prior to getting the job at Troublemaker, I was put through the ringer in order to ensure that I was going to be up for what was expected of me.”

“‘You want me to sweep the floor? Sure, I’ll do that!’” recalls Aaron of his glamorous entry to the film industry. “Gopher jobs are the ones you will start with, no matter what. If you try and enter this field at a young and inexperienced age that is what will be expected of you. If you aren’t prepared for that then you won’t make it very far.” The key, he says, is perseverance and patience, waiting for the right opportunities and making sure you grasp them when they appear. “There will be no need to screw anyone over,” Aaron insists. “Your time will come. Know how to recognise it and be prepared. It really all boils down to one thing: Initiative. Take a look at the guys from Cobra Productions, AJ and Chris – neither of them had any connections but were still above to move out to Hollywood and thrive.”

Early work

In the meantime, Aaron’s duties gradually advanced from floor cleaning to working on actual productions, as his superiors came to recognise his abilities. “Somebody will notice you, especially if you are the one who is constantly in motion and getting the job done rather than sitting on your ass complaining about how you could do a better job than the director.” His first assignment took him down to New Orleans to work as an intern on a documentary called Truth in Terms of Beauty, directed by Oscar nominee Vince DiPersio.

It was demanding shoot, starting with an “intense and lonely” thirteen hour drive from Austin followed by a whirlwind five day shoot. “We interviewed like ten people in ten different locations throughout the city,” Aaron recalls. “I really learned a lot about production and filmmaking in general on that show, and got to demonstrate a lot more than my coffee making skills.”

A month later and Aaron found himself in Mexico City working on the movie Curandero, written by none other than Robert Rodriguez himself. “It was a small project from Miramax, and my first full production cycle from pre-production through post.” Now elevated from an entry-level intern, Aaron found himself pulled in different directions, multi-tasking on everything from assisting the director to shooting the behind-the-scenes material.

It was only the end of the summer, 2004. Aaron had worked on several productions, had travelled and had proven his ability to adapt to the needs of the project. But with the summer over he was faced with the prospect of going back to university and potentially stalling his career just as it got started. By the end of the year he’d decided which path to take and reduced his school commitment to just a few classes, enabling him to continue working at Troublemaker. This time he found himself in the publishing department, working on websites and books – not exactly what he had in mind, but it helped to widen his network of contacts at the studio.

The break

A largely uneventful year passed, with Aaron diligently but finding it difficult to move out of the publishing department. In the closing months of 2005 he got his first big break. “I heard some of the VFX gurus talking down in the kitchen,” he explains. “The conversation had something to do with XSI supporting multi-pass renders more easily.” While he’d worked successfully as both an intern and in publishing, Aaron had never had a chance to reveal his post-production knowledge, borne from his home filmmaking roots and the days of playing with Chromanator and other products on his home PC. “So I decided to jump in with some of my limited knowledge of the subject,” he says, recalling their surprise at such an informed intern. “Within a week, I had my own desk and workstation. I was finally doing something that I really enjoyed.”

One of his first projects was the Rodriguez-Tarantino double-bill Grindhouse. “I pulled double duty,” he says, “shooting behind-the-scenes for twelve hours on set then heading back to the office for intense leg removal sessions.” Leg removal, for those not in the know, relating to Rose McGowan’s character, who has a rather unusual prosthetic limb in the form of a machine gun. Of the 325 effects shots assigned to Troublemaker Digital, Aaron worked on over 70 and finalised about 35. “I went from VFX intern to 2D artist in about three months,” Aaron recalls with some pride. It was an intense beginning to his professional visual effects career, often requiring him to work day and night. “There was a point in the show where I lived in the studio full-time. I took advantage of every opportunity that was given to me and while stressful and emotional it was one of
the greatest experiences of my life.”

Since Grindhouse Aaron’s been kept busy on commercials and other film projects, most recently a largely greenscreen production for director Nicolas Lopez’s Santos. “I guess years of pulling mattes in Chromanator prepared me for this line of work,” says Aaron. “I've been kicking ass on this show – I’ve done about 200 matte pulls and will have over 100 finals when it’s all said and done.”

The next step

Despite his blossoming career, Aaron still keeps in touch with his roots. Having become online friends with AJ ‘ajjax44’ Rickert-Epstein and Chris ‘CX3’ Cowan through the ancient website (which would later evolve into, Aaron finally had a chance to meet his fellow filmmakers when he found out that a friend of AJ’s was also working at Troublemaker. “After shooting Fingerman, AJ drove from Ohio to hang out with us for a few days. We really hit it off and when I was out in LA about six months ago doing some other work I called him, hopped in my rental car and went to Cobra Productions.” As a result, the superb Fingerman feature film also contains fourteen effects shots created by Aaron. “Chris had already done a ton and AJ was doing from by frame screen tracking in Final Cut Pro! What a pain,” he remembers. “We had a blast.”

Despite already finding success at a young age, Aaron’s only just got started. “I know that I can go a lot farther in this industry. It is my goal to learn and master every aspect of filmmaking, from cinematography to direction to production and post-production.” With the ultimate goal of directing, Aaron is already well on his way. As he says: “Your time will come. Know how to recognize it and be prepared.”

Aaron was kind enough to send over some great video clips. Check them out below:

Grindhouse behind-the-scenes

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Visual effects demo reel

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Aaron's action test

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Thanks to Aaron and Troublemaker for the images and videos!
Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 12:32pm

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Nice Interview! Always great to see someone progressing through applying their talent and working hard.
All the best

Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 1:31pm

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Great spotlight! Oh, what I wouldn't give to work at Troublemaker studios! biggrin
Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 4:46pm

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Great spotlight! Fantastic news too! Well done Aaron. I had wondered what had happened to you and where you'd been for all this time!

Great stuff! Some awesome VFX stuff under your belt already, well on your way! Look forward to hearing/seeing more!
Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 4:51pm

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I've always held you in the highest regard Cantaclaro, it's fantastic to hear that you are achieving great success. I'm only just getting in to the industry myself, finally!

Here's to the future!
Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 5:19pm

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Man that's great news. I'm glad life is going well for you and congratulations. I'm hoping to get into the media industry after college in a few years time, possibly the BBC hopefully and I've already met Brian Klein on a college audio trip. Whoever he is he seemed to be a nice guy and said "Don't be afraid to want to do something, do it, achive it and then make money doing it."

But good work though Cantacaro keep those films coming and don't forget us when your possibly in Hollywood, your deserve it wink

Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 5:28pm

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Dude, way to show us all it can be done.

Well done and I hope it's what you heart has been after.

remember 10 minute breaks every hour or you'll go blind.... !!!!
Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 9:18pm

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Man! What a good read. Nice to see canta doing well. I wish some vets would come back, but I know some are busy. smile I'm really glad I signed up when I did. I'm really proud of people on FXH, a lot of people seem to be doing very well in all sorts of age ranges. Very encouraging and inspiring. I respected canta a lot when I was younger and he was active. His VFX test (exploding car comes to mind) and films were great, and he was a great poster. Always a Rodriguez fan as well, always had an upcoming film in his sig. So yeah, congrats. +1, always good to look at members of the forum.

Serpent disgust

Posted: Wed, 30th Jan 2008, 9:49pm

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Great interview and cool pictures!
Posted: Thu, 31st Jan 2008, 6:54pm

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Very interesting read and great pictures!
Good luck in the future Aaron!
Posted: Mon, 4th Feb 2008, 1:00pm

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Another fantastic spotlight! It really is great to see people progressing their career- you get to do the job you want to do 24 hours a day- and you get paid for it! It's like the icing on the cake really. Well done- i'm very pleased for you biggrin

All the best
Posted: Mon, 4th Feb 2008, 10:59pm

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Hey guys, thanks for the spotlight. I've been hanging around this site and its older siblings for 6 years now! My career is just getting started I'm looking forward to the future.

Sites like this and my mentors have helped me get where I am and I'm totally into paying it forward. Should any aspiring VFX artist and/or filmmakers have questions you can send me a PM or email at cantaclaro(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

Special thanks to Tarn, Schwar and all the other FXHome guys for peaking my interest back in high school.

Aaron (Cantaclaro) Burns
Posted: Tue, 5th Feb 2008, 7:42am

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Holy balls, he's alive!

I was just talking about how cool it would be to kick it with cantaclaro next year in Austin. Robert Rodriguez has always been a big idol of mine (reason I really wanted at all/trusted in UT Film into filmmaking........continued it.........still do it......everything) and so have you, actually.

I hope I see you somewhere about town next year, as I've been admitted to the school. (this of course, pending my USC letter of rejection/acceptance and other factors)

Cool stuff, man!
Posted: Tue, 17th Jun 2008, 5:23am

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Just read this over again after you came to visit me on set the other day. U are kicking ass out here already man. Keep up the good work and tell Carlos I said what up. It won't be long now dude...