Johnson Thomasson is the Lead Virtual Production Developer for The Third Floor, one of the world’s leading visualization studios. Since joining the company, he has worked with several blockbuster films and TV series during the pre-visualization phase including The Book of Boba Fett, Jungle Cruise, The Mandalorian, Gemini Man and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Thomasson will be part of the “Emerging Technologies in Filmmaking” panel discussion at the 2023 Mississippi Film Summit on August 25. Get your tickets here.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
Well, I moved around a lot, but my childhood was spent in Indianola, Mississippi. I lived there from age 5 to 10, and I was homeschooled during that time, so I was usually out and about before my friends at the public and private schools got out, and I did a lot of solo exploring around my neighborhood in the bayou. And then when I was 10, my dad got a job at Mississippi State University and we moved to Starkville. I ended up going to high school in Louisville at Grace Christian School. After that I came back to Mississippi State and got a computer science degree and stayed and worked in the state for a while after that.
How did you discover your interest in working in film?
That’s a good question. I think a number of little hints got me into the ballpark, and then I discovered filmmaking and just kind of got bit by the bug. But the initial things, I can trace one of them back to being in Indianola. I would have been 8 or 9, so that would have been 1995. The Chamber, the John Grisham novel-turned-film was filming in Indianola. There’s a scene where they blow up a building in downtown Indianola, and on my bike one day I just happened upon the crowd that had sort of gathered to watch that explosion.
They had built a fake facade to a downtown law office and then they had a live explosion and these little foam bricks blew everywhere and there was a lot of smoke. And I remember seeing that and just being like, wow, that is so cool. How does one do that? So that was probably the first seed of my interest.
And then another sort of happenstance was a Sunday school teacher in Starkville, he was getting his masters in computer graphics. Unfortunately, Mississippi State doesn’t have that program anymore. But at the time, it was a really good program. He took me and some other kids to his computer lab to try out Maya, it’s a 3D modeling software. I modeled a cannon because I was really interested in the Civil War. He went on to work on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. That was really eye opening and exciting. So, I started digging into 3D graphics at the time.
And around that same time, my grandparents had a Handycam. My family never had a video camera, but my grandparents did and I had a bunch of cousins. When we went there for the holidays, I started playing with that and I had enough of a picture of how a movie gets made to say, okay, you guys are going to be my actors and I’m going to be the camera guy, and let’s come up with a story and shoot it. So those kinds of things all happening around the same time were pushing me further down this rabbit hole.
And when I got to high school, I found a couple of friends that–I wouldn’t say they were really into movie making, but Louisville, it’s a small town. There’s not a lot going on. If somebody’s got a fun idea, everyone’s ready to go with it. And so, I was like, let’s make a movie.
Actually the first one was a school project for a computer class. I asked the teacher if we could make a movie, which was pretty hard to do at that time, because we were just getting digital handycams and video editing software and hardware was still out of reach for most people, but I was able to get some software and start dabbling in digital editing.
That was where things really started accelerating for me, being able to capture video and then manipulate it in the computer and use that to build a narrative and then show it to people and see their reaction. It just created this thrilling feedback loop. And so, through high school, I kept expanding to doing slightly bigger and bigger projects.
The first longer pieceI did was a film called Private Detective, which we shot in and around Louisville. Honestly, we had tried to shoot something much larger. We had this feature film idea that was very serious sci-fi and way outside of our capability at the time. And it wasn’t until we had shot a couple of scenes of that and then we realized we’re not going to be able to pull this off.
Fortunately, we decided at that time to pivot and take the props we had built and the costumes we had acquired, and we came up with a sillier, little small town premise, and that was the film Private Detective. It ended up being about a half hour long, and it was about a kid from a small town whose uncle is the sheriff and the kid fancies himself a private detective, and he asked the uncle if he has any warrants that he can serve. He ends up going after some unique characters in the movie and bringing them to justice. And it’s just a funny, silly movie.
But we had reached a certain level of sophistication in our moviemaking process at that point. That was difficult for the time and for our age. We got into the film festival in Jackson, and I remember going down there with the buddies who made it with me, and we saw that play at the Crossroads Film Festival and that was super exciting. The experience of getting to see that together with an audience of peers and film enthusiasts just further added to my love for filmmaking. I continued to make slightly larger and larger projects through the end of high school and then college, and then even after college, and sort of culminating with a film called Headrush, which we released in 2011.
We raised the money for Headrush through a crowdfunding campaign and we had a couple generous private investors, including Robbie Fisher of Jackson. I think in the end the budget was about $30,000, which at the time just seemed like, you know, the most money you could ever ask for. And some really great artists came out to be involved in that project. We had some great Mississippi actors and filmmakers from Jackson. David Matthews was the DP on that. He’s got a great eye. My role in that was that I wrote it, I was kind of the lead producer, hiring and finding locations and then casting. And then I directed it and edited it, did all the visual effects and did all the sound mixing. Basically, the only piece of post I didn’t do was actually make the music.
In the end we had a really impressive 45-minute film and we took it on tour around the state and we were able to work with the Malco Theater chain to show it in four of their locations. We had a big turnout at each of those, I think we went to Madison, Starkville, Tupelo and Oxford. So, a lot of people got to see that. And a lot of people from all over the state had worked on it. It was a really rewarding thing to do the tour. Unfortunately, the film was of a length that it was kind of in a no man’s land for film festivals. It was too long to play with the shorts and it was too short to play with the features. So, we never really got much traction on film festivals. I used Headrush as a portfolio piece in my application to graduate programs and I ended up getting into USC’s film production program a few years after that, largely on the strength of it, and I went through that three-year program and then got my first job in the industry.
What kind of training did you have there at USC?
I certainly had aspirations, and still do, of directing, and the film production program at USC is a sort of general production training where you choose a specialization midway through the three years, running the gamut from writing to cinematography to production design, editing, directing.
It’s really only 10 percent that get to pursue directing by the end, because not everyone can be a director. Everyone directs a few things in their first year and I did visual effects work on my own work at USC because I was self-taught in a program called After Effects and I could do a little bit of 3D, but mostly 2D compositing work in After Effects.
I could do some pretty cool stuff, and so I was doing that on my own films and people started paying attention to that and started asking me to work as a visual effects artist on their films. And that reputation grew until I was kind of working on everybody’s films as a VFX artist, and I found it really enjoyable. It was still a creative endeavor, and I was working closely with the director and I needed to be able to speak their language, so it helped to have the directing background as well.
Also, at the time the chair of the film school was a guy named Michael Fink, who was a career visual effects supervisor and won the Oscar for Visual Effects for The Golden Compass and got his career started on Blade Runner. He’d been around and kind of seen everything in visual effects. He took an interest in me and really mentored me through my time there.
Midway through the three years, I had a heart to heart with him in his office about my direction for the rest of film school. I decided to pursue visual effects rather than putting all my energy towards directing. And I think that was a great decision.
I took a couple internships that summer. One was at a company called Fuse FX, who works on so many TV shows. And that really opened my eyes to the industry that is visual effects. It’s a massive industry, sort of a sub industry of film and TV, but there are tens of thousands of artists around the world working in this. And it’s well structured. There are some really well-run companies that exclusively do visual effects and there’s specializations within that. There’s modeling and texturing and animating and lighting and compositing and all these things. That was really eye opening to me. I didn’t know which of those specializations I fit into because I had been doing it for myself and sort of wearing all the hats and not knowing what the hats were called.
So, I had to find my place. The chief creative person on a VFX team is the visual effects supervisor. While I was finishing at USC, I was able to be the visual effects supervisor for some ambitious student films. One was a friend’s thesis film called When Pigs Fly, and it starred Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
And it had a sizable budget for student film and a lot of visual effects. I spent almost a year straight working on that, and I recruited a team of other student artists to help me create all the visual effects and manage that team and also hired some freelancers out in the world to do little bits here and there.
The visual effects portion of that movie was really a big task for a student, and it was super informative. And I had someone like Mike Fink to bounce ideas off of and make sure I was never going off the track. And there was another project similar to that around the same time.
Those two projects made up my visual effects portfolio by the time I graduated, and visual effects artists refer to these as a reel, a 2- to 3-minute video of your work. Sometimes there’s a breakdown, where you go, “Here is what you thought was all real, but actually, let me pause the video and show you the things that were computer generated in this video.” I had a reel based on those to projects.
What was your first film job?
When I graduated in December 2016, I spent about a month applying to visual effects studios all over Los Angeles and ended up getting a two-week gig at a company called The Third Floor, a really well-established pre-visualization company. Pre-vis is tangential to visual effects, and it’s kind of a niche within a niche, I like to say.
They brought me on to do what’s called post-vis on the Jumanji film that stars The Rock and Jack Black. I came on and worked on that for two weeks and they thought I was doing a good job. So, they extended me to the end of that project and I’ve been at the company ever since.
I’ve had some really cool opportunities since I’ve been there. I’ve gotten to work with some all-star directors. One unique thing about pre-vis is that it’s early in the filmmaking process and on these big studio films, often the film is not set in stone during the pre-production phase.
It’s an evolving thing, evolving in collaboration with the pre-vis team who’s doing rough animations based on the guidance of the director and visual effects supervisor and DP. I gravitated toward a side of pre-vis called virtual production. Virtual production kind of means different things to different people. But if you look at the way Avatar is made, where they have actors in motion capture suits and they capture their motion and apply that motion to these CG characters, and then they have what’s called a virtual camera, which is essentially an iPad that is rendering a view into the virtual world and being tracked as it moves through space.
Those aspects of virtual production are something that we do at The Third Floor as a service to make our pre-vis process more interactive for our clients. I really gravitated towards that because it was somewhere between the computer graphics world, which is mostly sitting at a desk and the film production world, which I also love, which is hands on cameras and working with actors.
Fortunately, The Third Floor has a small virtual production group that does this work. I joined that team after about six months. And the first project I worked on was Disney’s Christopher Robin. At the office in L.A. we have a motion capture studio and we would have the director Marc Forster and his DP on that film, Matthias Koenigswieser. They would come to our stage and shoot virtual camera. I ended up operating the machine that ran those sessions. Marc Forster would say, you know, I’d like to fly over there and get an angle like this on a 50 millimeter lens. I’m sitting at a computer and taking that instruction and translating it into the computer. So again, being able to speak that language of film creatives enabled me to be in that seat at that time, having just started in my career.
From there on, I’ve worked on some other cool projects. I had a brief but memorable stint on Gemini Man, where I got to work directly with Ang Lee in Savannah, Georgia. My role on that was introducing Ang Lee to VR scouting, which is another aspect of virtual production. In that case we’ll take a real world location that has been scanned in 3D or a set that has been designed by the art department, we’ll take those into the computer and get them prepped, and then we will facilitate a Virtual Reality review of them where we’ll place someone into the virtual space and they can look around, they can pull up the virtual viewfinder and view the space through different lenses. I don’t believe Ang Lee had ever been in VR before. I remember very delicately putting the goggles on and the controls in his hand and sort of guiding his fingers to press the buttons. It was wild.
That’s a lot of what we do at The Third Floor, to facilitate exploration of the story world for our clients. That might be through traditional pre-vis where we have animators that are animating characters, or it might be through virtual camera where the director or the DP is looking into the virtual world. Or it could be through VR where they’ve got a headset on and they feel like they’re in the space. So whatever fits that particular creator.
Are there any more current or recent projects you can talk about?
I came on to The Mandalorian Season One midway through and did a number of things on that. I did a motion capture for a scene where Mando takes on eight droids in this prison corridor. And then I did what’s called motion control for these creatures called Blurrgs, and that was on set within the LED volume that they shoot a lot of that show on. So that’s at the pinnacle of movie tech, I got to be right in the middle of that and see that happening. So that was exciting. And then I was on Season Two as well from beginning to end, at least for our pre-vis team, and that was about the time I was making a shift away from being an artist at the company to being more of a software developer building tool sets both for other artists at the company as well as tool sets that would be directly used by our clients. I’m talking about virtual camera and VR scouting. I’m now writing those tools, trying to think about what would be intuitive and again, what would sort of be in the language of the filmmaker. And the joy that I find in that is I get to approach it as if I’m the filmmaker and think if I’m trying to communicate my vision, what would help me do that the best? These days I’m building software-based tools to do that, to help directors communicate their vision early on in the production process.
What has been the most surprising thing for you about working in film?
The spectrum of jobs there is. I think for people outside the centers of the industry, like I was growing up in Mississippi, you know that films aren’t made by a single person, but you kind of imagine that they’re made by maybe like four people. (laughs) But there are actually hundreds, if not thousands, involved with most sizable film productions. The skill sets needed run the gamut from purely creative to very technical and engineering minded to accounting and everywhere in between. A system has grown up as part of the industry and there are well-defined roles and teams and there can be a lot of efficiency in the process. I think from the inside it looks very different than the glitz and glamor that is imagined from the outside.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
I had a number of people as I was going through school that really helped guide me. Mike Fink at USC is certainly one and another professor of mine at the time, his name was John Brennan and he worked on Jungle Book, the most recent one, and Ready Player One, both sort of cutting-edge virtual production projects. He really opened my eyes to that emerging tech space of film.
Has being from Mississippi helped you stand out in any way?
I think just working honestly and hard and being friendly has allowed me to make some really pivotal relationships and grow quickly in my career. A lot of people I’ve ended up working with are from the South.
Do you have a favorite moment working on a project?
On Mandalorian Season Two, it’s a bit of a long story, but the company needed to adapt the way we were working after Season One. Based on feedback from the production, we needed to do things differently. Someone needed to step up and build a new pipeline to make that happen. And I got tapped to do that. Around the same time, my boss took another job. A lot of the pressure that would have fallen on him ended up falling on me. We had three months or so before Season Two started, and I had a little team that I was leading. I feel like we really did something amazing in that short period of time before we got on the show. What we built was a success and it worked. That was about a year of me working my butt off. But in the end, our clients were very happy with what we did. And I think the new way of working had a big impact on the creativity of the show in that season. Sitting down with the family to watch that as the episodes started rolling out was a really satisfying experience.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into filmmaking?
I would say just start making things. Write a one-page script, find a friend to be in it and shoot it with your phone and get it into a computer and edit it. You can edit on your phone, but I’m a little biased. I think you’re handicapping yourself if you’re trying to do post work on a mobile device, but I do think that these days, there’s no excuse for not just shooting something when we have this fantastic camera that’s in our pockets.
And then, YouTube is such a great resource. There are so many filmmakers that are sharing how to do things. And something I’ve been watching lately–The Hollywood Reporter does these roundtable interviews with actors and directors and writers. It’s such a great source for inspiration and knowledge and a picture of how the industry works. Those are all great places to start. Director’s commentaries on DVDs are also invaluable, and David Fincher is one who would do a commentary on almost every film he did. And that was like a film school in its own right to just listen to him talk about the choices along the way.
What do you do when you’re not working on movies?
These days most of my spare time is hanging out with my kids. I’ve got a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. I’m just having fun watching them grow up and playing in the yard. I guess my favorite pastime still is to play Ultimate Frisbee, which I started playing as a young kid.