How a director of photography learned to create without physical limits
Images by Karl Poyzer
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many artists have had their mediums closed off to them. With the limitations set on production teams and the complex logistics of getting back on set, some artists have had to find new ways to express themselves — like Karl Poyzer, a director of photography who took the time during the pandemic to dive into 3D artwork in Blender, with the goal of having fun and doing things his own way. This track would not only allow him to develop a fan base and fresh style but also to start a short film series, Floaters, that won a Vimeo Staff pick due to its amazing visuals, efficient storytelling, and — most importantly — its British humor.
I got to chat with Poyzer about his journey of getting started in 3D, the development of Floaters, and his tips for getting started in 3D art.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Take me to the beginning. How did you get started?
As a kid, I was hugely into sci-fi and Star Trek and Star Wars. And as I was growing up, I was a little bit more of a polymath in terms of stuff that I did, like making music, how you play music, writing, and stuff like that. And then yeah, went to university and started film and then got into cinematography. And the thing for the next 10 years, it was just specializing in one creative outlet, which was a lot of fun. And it was really great, but that interest in sci-fi was always there and the storytelling element of it.
So tell me about your move into 3D. Did being a director of photography contribute to your exploration of this new medium?
I think what’s been interesting is I was quite scared, as I started spending more time on 3D, that I wouldn’t be taken as seriously. We have a problem in the UK with people hyphenating their job roles. I don’t think this is bad in the US, but we get quite snobby about life. When people do multiple things, they can’t be doing any of them seriously. So I was quite worried about how directors see me and that I would not be taken seriously as a cinematographer, whereas I found my following has increased tenfold really. And I’ve got a lot of new relationships with new directors through doing this.
I think the photography side of things gave me an advantage when it came to learning 3D because the lights work basically in the same way, but they are a lot cheaper. You don’t need to pay a crew overtime, and you’re not doing night shoots and all that. I think the thing that keeps me coming back to it, it’s just like that experimentation of those kinds of things and the storytelling of it. I’m not trying to be a full-time artist necessarily, so showing off art skills is something that I’m not bothered about. I’m more interested in whether a piece of art evokes some sort of story, whether it feels like there’s a story there or not. It was really nice when I first started putting stuff out when people were writing little bits of micro fiction and stuff like that. I’ve succeeded if it makes people feel like there’s room in there for them to put their own story.
Damn. That’s the dream. I can imagine that’s such a great feeling. People were just building out the world a little bit for you, and you’ve succeeded in giving them the bits that just spark something.
Yeah. I think there were loads of great artists out there who do work, that you can see the story, that where there are people doing things. There are things moving in specific directions or things blowing up and exploding, and the story’s all there and it looks amazing. And then there are us who do less of that. And my feeling is like my favorite artists are the ones whose landscapes are almost devoid of people. My goal is to allow people to be the people in those pictures. So I think that if you leave the story out, you allow the people who are looking at the art to have some of that story.
I wanted to ask a question about this. I read your Medium post on greebles [bits of details on larger objects that make them appear more complex]. So I definitely want to ask a question where you could just rant about them!
Yeah, it’s exactly the same. I think people could maybe mistake my rant about greebles as a love of little things attached to spaceships, and it isn’t so much that. I think what I was trying to say was that putting things into your world, be them little bits of things sticking to the side of your spaceship to make it look more detailed or bits of story, I think they serve the same purpose. Is there a correlation between smoother spaceships and lesser stories? I don’t know, maybe. But I think in the ’70s and ’80s, you relied on that stuff a little bit more because you couldn’t just computer generate it. You couldn’t just show it, that things were a lot more difficult to do.
I think that limitation bred the need to expand your universe’s reach cheaply, and the cheapest way to do that normally was just have your character say something or allude to something that you don’t necessarily have to explore. Like the Kessel Run or the attack ships on fire from Blade Runner and stuff like that and the space jockey. There were all these nice little things, a lot of which have now sort of been explored and shown to us and they’re not ours anymore. It’s a shame really, nothing that they could have put on-screen would have been weirder than the sort of weird abstract thoughts that everyone had about what the space jockeys were.
I think it was such a beautiful thing that we got to have a little bit of ownership of, we were trusted with. It’s a shame that there isn’t more of that. I miss the strangeness, the lack of logic. And I think it’s why when people ask me what things do in my pieces, my answer is always, “That’s yours.”
So when you make a piece, what’s the guiding light as you assemble things?
I would say like 80 percent of what I make, I go in without a plan. I think the work I’m happiest with is work where I’ve gone in without a plan because it’s normally the strangest. It’s not always the case. Sometimes, especially if I’m working on Floaters, I’ll have to make a thing that’s a specific thing to do a specific thing. But yeah, with the art, the surrealism of it, I think I tend to not go in with a plan. And then at that point, it’s just about finding shapes of things that I think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” You can get carried away quite easily in 3D because you can just keep adding and adding and adding. And then all of a sudden, your thing doesn’t look good anymore. And then you’ve got to scale it back and it’s weird, like how wide do you go?
And that can sometimes be a battle. It’s a weird thing because I feel like a lot of the time, there’s probably only about an hour and a half’s worth of like if I was to remake, it would maybe only take me an hour. But sometimes it’s like four or five hours of just me looking at a thing. It started as a spaceship, then it became a building, and then it was a spaceship again. That process is a lot of fun. I use references and, obviously, I look at a lot of stuff on Pinterest and try and take as much. In the same way, we were talking about kitbashing and greebling. It’s the same thing. It’s like picking a little bit of that and a little bit of that and mashing them together and seeing what comes out.
How would you describe the relationship you have with your art?
That’s a good question. Would I describe it as an abusive relationship? Maybe I would.
I get super excited when I’m making something. And it’s got to a point where I’m happy with them, “Oh, there it is. Let’s go down this road.” And I’m super excited to put it out and the dopamine hit of people liking it and sharing it. I’m very, very lucky to have my work shared quite a lot. I think being starved of that for 10 years in the film industry, I need that feedback. So the last couple of years in the film industry was just being slower and slower as the budgets got bigger. And it was just was longer and longer period of time between projects. I think it’s become a joyous thing to just be able to make it and put it out and be excited about it. But I do look back at them after a couple of days and then don’t like looking at them anymore. So I have a fling with each of them.
How did Floaters come about?
It was a weird one. Although I’d been doing 3D for a little while, it was the first time I’d ever animated anything. So it was born out of restrictions really in that I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to animate people or do rigging or any of that stuff. So all we really had was the option to make things float and move up and down. So it was kind of a case of trying to work out how those limitations would become positives rather than negatives.
We stumbled upon this nice little idea where we just never see the inside of a spaceship and always just do everything from exteriors. That kind of became a selling point rather than a limitation. The design language is just a lot of fun. I think a lot of sci-fi can get quite serious, which I love, but it’s kind of nice to just undercut it with really dry British humor.
It turned out to be, I think by a country mile, the most popular thing either of us had ever done. And it was just sort of taking it not really seriously. I think it was an interesting exercise and just doing a thing that you feel like you could do well.
What would you say for people starting out their journey in art and 3D?
The hardest part of doing any of this stuff when you’re starting out is going back to it the next day. And you won’t go back the next day if you didn’t enjoy the day before. When you’re first starting to learn something, to get to a point where you enjoy it is really difficult, I had to start in a way that allowed me to sort of come back the next day. And I think that to do that, you have to find the way that you want to do it.
To begin with, you’re going to cut corners and you’re going to do it wrong. You are going to do it differently. I always say this about Blender and having a small sort of Patreon of people who have Blender questions and making tutorials. I think a lot of tutorials are designed for people or made by people who went to university and learned how to do 3D properly from the very basics. Whereas like my approach was I came in sideways and I was like, “Look, this thing works if you do this, I don’t necessarily know why. I don’t know what its purpose is, but it works.”
It might take you a little bit longer, but you’re never going to learn the proper way if you’re not doing it in a year’s time, two years’ time. And that’s the real shame is that people give up. If there’s a way you’re making something you’re happy with and you’re going back to it the next day, you’ll learn all of the other stuff. If you’re enjoying it, you’re going back to it.