Jay Worth – Sharing a Unique Vision

by Graham Edwards

Jay Worth - VFX supervisor on "Westworld"

Emmy award-winner Jay Worth has worked with Bad Robot since 2005 on television projects including Fringe, Person Of Interest and Westworld. Following his presentation at VIEW Conference 2018, Cinefex caught up with Jay to talk about his life as an independent visual effects supervisor.

VIEW Conference 2018

CINEFEX: You began your VIEW Conference presentation talking about your background in acting, and how you’d had all these other jobs before kind of falling into doing visual effects. You also said that helped you to develop what you call your own “unique vision.”

JAY WORTH: When I started out in visual effects, I felt like I was always playing catch-up – wondering how much was down to me, how much down to the writers, the artists – because I don’t really have a technical background. Then, after I’d been doing it for a while, I realized that I did know what I could bring to the table, and what my own unique vision was. And I love the idea that actually everybody has their own unique vision. Because when you look at any one visual effects shot, that’s been done by a person with their own individual perspective. Even if it’s a fluid simulation, it’s still done by an artist.

CINEFEX: What are the benefits of working as an independent visual effects supervisor?

JAY WORTH: Well, first, I tell people all the time that there are not enough independent visual effects supervisors in television. We all turn down work, a lot, and I think more and more studios and showrunners want to be working with independent supervisors when they can. The great thing for me as an independent is I can work with any companies I want, and I like being able to find those people out there that do certain things really well. I love when vendors send me specific reels. Send me your smoke reel. Send me your fire reel. If you have an artist that you cannot wait to put in front of me, let me know. It’s okay for me if you specialize in something.

CINEFEX: Because every artist has their own vision.

JAY WORTH: Right. There was this one matte painter at CoSA Visual Effects, and I would literally just email them and say, “Send it to her, because I know she’s the one who’s doing the shot.” I love when you find those certain artists. I had this one vendor, and when they were reading their breakdown and found they weren’t assigned this one sequence, they were pissed. They said, “You don’t understand, we’ve got a smoke guy that has to do these shots!” I love it when vendors do that.

CINEFEX: So you’re acting a little bit like a casting director – appropriate, given your background in acting.

JAY WORTH: I never really thought about it that way, but yes. I’m always looking for the next partners, the next CoSA, the next Important Looking Pirates. But also, television shows morph and change. Sometimes you’ll have a pilot that’s heavy on hard surfaces or matte paintings, and then you get into episode four and it’s all fluid simulations. A show doesn’t always want to be stuck with just one vendor.

Watch a Westworld season two breakdown reel by Important Looking Pirates:

CINEFEX: Is it sometimes the case that the right vendor comes along at just the right time?

JAY WORTH: Sure, that happened with Almost Human. It was the big climactic shot that establishes the entire world at the end of the pilot. We had done the whole episode, and I got a note from J.J. Abrams that said, “I hate this shot.” I emailed back to ask what he hated about it, and got no answer. So I used it as an audition piece. I sent the same brief and the same notes, with my idea of what needed to be fixed, to nine different companies. I got back nine of the most different matte paintings you’re ever going to see in your life. A lot of them didn’t work, but there was this one vendor that was seventh on the list in terms of size, and the lowest cost – Artifex Studios up in Vancouver. What they came up with was perfect. Everyone looked at it and said, “That’s the entire show, right there.” They ended up doing every matte painting for the rest of the show.

CINEFEX: These days, in features, the visual effects supervisor is often involved from day one. Is the same true for television?

JAY WORTH: Thankfully, I’ve been blessed that I’ve always been involved from the get-go, but I think that’s a fairly unique position. Bad Robot will call me to say they have a pilot for me; I’ll ask who’s directing it and they’ll say, “We don’t know yet!” So I end up in meetings with the showrunner, maybe a production designer, and me, in a room full of executives, first out of the gate in figuring out what this show will look like.

CINEFEX: Further down the line, when you’re into production, do you end up working on multiple episodes simultaneously?

JAY WORTH: It totally depends on the show, but usually you have four episodes going at once. You’re prepping one, shooting one, editing one, and delivering one or two at a time. Then all of a sudden it backs up, and everything goes a little haywire. With Netflix shows you have a little bit more freedom. From my perspective, because I work on multiple shows, I can have up to 30 shows in the pipeline. Lots of plate-spinning!

This breakdown reel from CoSA VFX features the company’s work on Westworld and other shows:

CINEFEX: Turning to Westworld, did the workload change when you moved from season one into season two?

JAY WORTH: Oh, the volume of work on season two! It was crazy how much more there was. Take Shogun World, my goodness! Because of the look they wanted, they hung silks through the entire street. We had to do hardcore roto to remove all the silks and do sky replacement. At first, we didn’t think we needed Mount Fuji, but we ended up putting Mount Fuji in most shots, because if you saw the California mountains back there it didn’t look right. One of the nice things was that we had a two-day blood element shoot – knife cuts and splashes, so much blood! – which I’d never gotten to do in my career. That was great.

CINEFEX: You had some big moments to tackle, too, like the passage of the hosts into this strange alternate realm in the season finale.

JAY WORTH: Right, there’s this fissure in the universe that goes to what they called the Sublime. But what does that look like? Is it a portal? A doorway? How’s the light going to work? There was this idea that it should bend and kind of tear into itself, and we also talked a lot theoretically about how it’s a computer program that only the hosts can see – but we didn’t want it to look digital …

CINEFEX: You can debate and articulate as much as you like about why something is the way it is, but …

JAY WORTH: Oh, there was a whole lot of “Why?” but it still came down to “What’s it going to look like?” We put in black particles and light particles and vibration and distortion and bending … we just kept chipping away to find out what’s underneath. That’s what this job is – it’s like visual sculpting.

CINEFEX: Do you think things will ramp up even more for Westworld season three?

JAY WORTH: Well, now our hosts are out, so I know that we’re going to have to see them somewhere. So for me it’s about worldbuilding, and I’m fascinated to see how that creative process goes. We’ve all seen future cities, for example, but it always comes back to those classic questions like, “What are the cars going to be?” I know a skyscraper’s going to be steel and glass, but how am I going to make it unique? Worldbuilding is always daunting, and a little scary, but it’s super fun. I’m looking forward to it.

Save the date for next year’s VIEW Conference, scheduled for 21-25 October, 2019.

“Westworld” image copyright © 2016 by Home Box Office.

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