The Business of Cross Reality - Interview with Charlie Williams

Charlie and CG Cookie go way back: he was classmates with our co-founder Wes Burke and worked with our team visiting libraries and schools close to our studio to introduce new audiences to Blender and 3D printing. Charlie's career has taken him to places beyond this dimension - into VR, that is. All the same, Blender remains close to his heart.

Charlie, you are now working at Next/Now, an experiential agency. What does that mean?

If you've never heard of the experiential industry, you're not alone! Basically, at Next/Now, we create marketing projects to promote our clients' brands, and we do this using bleeding edge technology.

What do such projects look like?

We specialize in digital experiences for physical spaces, with interactive experiences including AR, VR, projection mapping, motion graphics, interactive touchscreen displays, holograms, video walls or LED displays. You name it - we think it up and make it happen! To me, it's like a mix of Realtime interactive projects and very sophisticated cinematic motion projects.

Most projects are 6-12 weeks long and each of them is completely unique.

Who are your clients?

We work with a range of clients, from brands companies to sports organizations; some want to show their product in new, tech-savvy ways. Others want their customers to have an amazing experience in VR. 

                         "Fluid Lifeform"

What is your role at Next/Now?

I am the Design Team Manager, heading all the art that we create. I oversee the pipeline schedule for the studio. At the same time, I also have a lead artist role; I was not interested in being "just" a manager. To me, that is career suicide for an artist. In this role, I help create style frames and manage the designers providing creative directions while keeping the big picture in focus for the team. I am also in charge of the 3D department, where I push the quality benchmark of the 3D team.

What programs do you use at the agency? Does Blender ever play a role in your production?

I've had to learn a lot of new programs; as of late, we've been doing a lot of particle effects and simulation work, in the traditional sense as for render video animation used in motion design work. Blender has a fantastic particle system and I plan on using it for similar projects in the future. I always try to use the right tool for the job so our pre-production and visual development phase is the time I test out different tools like blender so will see but blender is looking better with each version. And that is so awesome to see.

We've also used a particle and fluid simulation tool Xparticles for Cinema 4D. The company who made this tool also ported the Cycles render over to be used in Cinema with this big particle system, so, in near future, Cycles could be an option as well. Being familiar with the Cycles render and it's node-based workflow has helped me a ton!

Digital Jellyfish

What was your career path before joining Next/Now?

My previous career varies,  from a stint in architectural rendering to a look into Game development based on a recommendation by Wes Burke! This led to the path of Gaming where I spent over 10 years in the video game industry. I had the opportunity to work with both large and small developers including Electronic Arts Chicago or High Voltage Software. I also taught for about 5 years.

What skill(s) helped you land the job at Next/Now?

Besides the Artistic skillset that I had developed over the years, my soft skills got a significant upgrade from the last 5 years of teaching, especially in communication. Inicidentally, communication is the skill that most young artists overlook.
As I look back at that time taking the initial freelance position at Next/ Now agency was my way of coming back to being a professional production artist.

And communication was key: I had to communicate goals and task and talk about problems with the team. I was able to do that in a way that stood out and eventually got me a fulltime position offer before my freelance contract was up.

So while I didn't  see it at the time, it all mattered: my teaching experience, my learning journey, my effort to stay current and going to meetups, working with CG Cookie, speaking at libraries, walking into schools and youth centers and pitching the concept of workshop and community outreach. This all gave me confidence when speaking and communicating ideas.

VR Environment, Coastal Mining

What are the main pros and cons of working at an agency?

For one, you have the freedom to work on bleeding edge tech and software. We also have the freedom to explore and innovate on ideas. Everyone is involved in the idea stages of an experience. Clients come to us because we create experiences for companies and brands that are completely original.

Another plus is that our projects are around 6 - 12 weeks long so I get to work on a lot of different types of projects in a given year, rather than being on the same project for 2-3 years.

On the other hand, you don't have the freedom that a freelancer enjoys. So your not able to work at different studios and get different types of experience.  I started out on that road of being a freelancer and now I am at more of a creative director/lead artist. I am incredibly happy at this point but who knows what the future holds.

Can you describe a specific project you worked on and what your role was on it?

Sure, let's take the project we did for Under Armor for the Prudential Center in Boston. Under Armor came to us wanting some sort of activation that would help launch their new store. After couple of rounds of ideation, we came up with the perfect way help them do that.

When a new store opens up in a mall everyone has seen the coming soon sign or barricade they put over the store.  We pitch them a  spin on coming soon barricade and turned it into a VR  preview experience where you walk up to a custom 'coming soon' barricade in the mall and you peer into an Oculus custom fabricated to a stand that allows you to preview what the store looked like by taking you on a virtual tour. Sounds cool, right?

VR Environment of Under Armor store in Boston Prudential Center

What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

Be open to change, take risks, and learn as much as you can.  But learning by doing: not just reading and watching tutorials alone.
Get in there and make stuff. AND FINISH THOSE THINGS YOU MAKE. The process of completing personal work is something I struggle with to this day. This is why I like production work so much; it forces me to focus and finish. With my personal work all my personal ideas cause feature creep.  So I would tell myself to work on focusing and getting things done.

How do you see the future of Blender?

With an introduction to the enhanced particle system and their new real-time  PBR engine (Eevee) it's getting better with each version. What Blender needs to do is keep streamlining their product so it's easy to fit into a production pipeline. If Blender keeps on its current trajectory I think big things are in store. 

Check out more projects by Next/Now and follow Charlie on ArtStation or check out his profile here on CG Cookie.

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