Artist Spotlight

Luck and Persistence with Tony Mills

Tony Mills talks with us about how to maintain longevity in a career that is infamous for its rapid pace and constant need for new ideas.

Vimeo | America Obscura

Reading Time | 14 minutes

Tony Mills has had a longer career than most of you have probably been alive. With those years comes more stories than we were able to fit into this interview (so don’t be afraid to ask him to share when you see him next). He recently struck out on his own with The Flying T Editing Company and we wanted to talk to him about how he’s able to maintain his passion after all this time. And for those of you who need it, we’ve included a handy terminology guide at the bottom of the interview!

Q&A with Tony Mills

Let’s start with the basics. How the heck did you get into the visual effects industry?

Luck and persistence. I had been in TV for four years already, and knew how to run an Avid when my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 1994. One of my first interviews was at Pixar, and I was a hair’s breadth away from being hired on Toy Story to replace a team editor that had to return to LA. I got a tour and was told they’d call. The editor decided to stay on the project, and that opportunity vanished. I kept plugging. I still have all my notes from this period. I was on the phone everyday. I called Lucasfilm, ILM, Skywalker … all the big production companies. San Francisco had all the agencies and post houses downtown, so I focused there.

I was a great machine room operator/E2 as well, so I started trying to find assistant work. I finally wrangled an interview at a place called Western Images. The Director of Operations, Mark Tellegan, took me into their machine room where they had all their computers and special equipment. Sitting in that machine room was a computer the size of a refrigerator. If you’ve seen the movie War Games with Matthew Broderick, there was a computer called the “WOPR” … it was the WOPR. It was a big plastic and metal beast with no monitor. I asked what it was and he told me that it was, a million-dollar Silicon Graphics Onyx. He said they were running a program called Flame, and they were making a car commercial with Industrial Light & Magic. I knew in that moment, that I wanted to be a Flame operator. I was 31. I tell you this because up until that time I had no idea that this kind of work was out there. If you haven’t found your passion in your 20’s, don’t worry because there is no telling what is down the road.

Until I saw that computer, I had no idea that that kind of work was being done on computers, because the place I had come from was a high end post house with hundreds of D2 and Digibeta decks, ten online edit bays. They also had an Avid. The online editors kind of laughed at it because of it’s high compression and it was only for offline editing. It wasn’t an online editing tool. Flame was the first compressionless digital video editor. At the time the standard was NTSC, but it could make an NTSC picture digitally 30 frames a second and run it smoothly. And it took a computer the size of a refrigerator.

Warheads “Hotheads” for Pixel Farm

The Onyx was the same system used for weather simulations and atomic bomb modeling. So they were in laboratories and places around the country, at colleges and universities. They weren’t in post-houses doing this kind of work except in a few places. I lucked into one of them. Oddly enough, Minneapolis had a Flame at this time, and our buddy Jake Parker was the first Flame artist here, and one of the first in the world.

I was at Western about three years and learned all about compositing and telecine. I spent some time as a telecine assistant and learned all about film and even how to shoot it. I spent some time in Western’s design division, WIG, and learned SoftImage and Flint. Then I got laid off from Western in 1997. This was fine because I was so highly trained as a telecine assistant, there was nobody with my skills any nearer than LA. I was able to go to Western’s biggest competitor and become the telecine assistant at a place called Varitel. That only lasted a couple of months because Varitel had a star visual effects artist named Michael Logan who ran their Henry, which was a super high end editing visual effects box back in the day that competed with Flame. He was Industrial Light & Magic’s favorite compositor outside of their own internal group. They told Michael that if Varitel would buy a Flame, they’d bring him even more business. I raised my hand and said, “I know how to operate a Flame”. So I got to be a dedicated assistant to the superstar at Varitel and within a year they bought a second Onyx and I had my own suite. I was at Varitel for four years and that is when things took off for me.

If you only put work for clients on your demo reel, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Varitel partnered with a design company called 168 Design. They came in and they brought with them the launch of the National Geographic Cable Channel. They got to create every single graphic, ID, promo etc. for the launch and brand, everything!  And then also that next summer, we rebranded Entertainment Tonight and that whole package ran for two years. 

You can see this work on my Vimeo page.

In 2001, Bill Pohlad’s company Hi-Wire recruited me from San Francisco. I was recruited here to Minnesota kind of blindly. Larry Sexton at Hi-Wire went on the Autodesk Discrete Logic website, and looked for available operators. I had listed myself there because in San Francisco in 2000, there was no high definition work happening. High definition was around in New York and Chicago and Minneapolis. I knew I needed to find an early adopter to advance my career.

Hi-Wire flew me to Minneapolis and they put me up in the Nicollet Island Inn and I was like, “Oh this is nice”. And then I went to Hi-Wire and met with them. They had a chef and a beautiful, beautiful facility in the most expensive real estate in town. I went back to San Francisco and told my wife, “I think we’re moving to Minnesota”. And she told me that she had had a dream that we moved somewhere cold. I’m not even kidding. She really did. So we moved here in 2001 and we’ve been here ever since. From Hi-Wire I went to Fisher Edit where I was a Flame and Smoke operator. Then I wound up at Pixel Farm where I spent the last ten years as their Senior Visual Effects artist and Visual Effects Supervisor.

Barbie “WOW” for Pixel Farm

So you’ve worked at a lot of great studios around town.

I’ve been very lucky in my career. I had great clients at Hi-Wire, pretty much every agency in town. I did work for Ikea, and BMW, Best Buy, etc. I did a Superbowl commercial for Subway. However, I didn’t do any Target work at Hi-Wire, even though they were bringing my facility color work. Fisher Edit was doing most of that editorial, but they had their own visual effects team, so they weren’t gonna bring us the visual effects. But then in 2005, I had the good fortune to be laid off at Hi-Wire (who shut down a year later) and by the end of that year I was at Fischer Edit, and suddenly I’m doing all the high-end Target work that I couldn’t get before. I hope you see a pattern here. Every time I was laid off, I wound up advancing my career and working at a better place. I want young people to know this in these uncertain times.

That was such a cool period. The work that Target was doing was a spectacle with acrobats and green screen, chaos! We made giant Grand Busby Berkeley and The Follies inspired fantasies selling toilet paper and tissue cleaning products and brooms. And yeah, it was just a golden period. I’m not embarrassed to leave those on my Vimeo page because I don’t feel that they’re dated. They still look really good. Because we did that work for PMH who had all the Target work at their agency. They had total control over so much of this production and they were aligned with all these different designers and every job was super exciting. You were learning about a new designer and their style with every job and it really was a golden period. 

Target Halloween for Fisher Edit

Do you have any thoughts on, or advice for people who are entering the industry now? Because you have seen so much of how this industry was formed and how the ebbs and flows affect the industry in general. Would you have any advice for younger artists?

I think the world is the young generation’s oyster. Quite honestly. Never give up and always keep creating, even just for yourself. If you only put work for clients on your demo reel, you are doing yourself a disservice. Show what you can do, and not just what a client directed you to do.

Don’t be too proud to go start off as a receptionist at a place that does awesome work. Do anything to get in that door and be a part of their culture. If you stay humble and helpful, people will mentor you.

You can do on your laptops now what it used to take a full studio to do, for the most part. In the way you guys collaborate, and work non-linearly and remotely, and even have several projects going on simultaneously. That’s definitely kind of the new way. I’m going to have to learn how to adapt to that. 

Facility level workstations like Flame are a different story. Every place I’ve ever worked was a facility where I had a network of people to support me, like a racing team. I liken running a Flame to driving in F1. It’s super high-end. I need an engineer. I can’t engineer my own system. It’s too complicated. I need engineering support. I need client services to help me keep the clients fed and distracted, or whatever is necessary. It generally takes a team to make it worth spending all this money in this hi-res room to work collaboratively in real time, because that’s kind of the promise of Flame and high-end systems.

That’s something that a lot of people might not know about for the process of working on Flame. A lot of times the clients are sitting there the whole time. The Flames and the high-end products from Autodesk, they were always optimized for client-attended sessions. In the old days, the clients from the agencies used to come sit and watch every single dollar being spent. Admittedly, this was on the cusp of the internet being used for approvals. You couldn’t do that remotely. You kind of had to come see the work at the facility. You might walk in with a DVD or you might get a tiny low-res link. Well, that stopped being the case in the mid 2000s. And the work has become more and more remote. But at the end, the clients still want to come and see the blinky lights and their work up on a big screen. Even though there’s less client-attended sessions, there’s always at least one good day at the end, where they want to do the dog and pony show, and they want to see everything in glorious HD, maybe with surround sound and have the whole experience. So I’m going to have to figure out how to address that in my own business I just started. I’m thinking about building a mobile system, but for now that is just some plans on the drawing board.

Sounds like being proactive has been a very big part of your career, can you explain other ways you are still being proactive?

If you sit still in this business, you are doomed. You have to be continually learning.

I have finally started my own business and taken the reins of my life. That’s a big move.

I have been willing to take some chances in my career because I felt like standing still was not going to work. I’m no genius about this stuff. My favorite quote about this is General Eric Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” I never wanted to be irrelevant. I want to continue to do the highest level of work. I’ve been willing to take some chances for that and move around.

I’ll confess, I’ve been very lucky. I have had very few, what I would consider, failures in my career. It almost emboldens me to take bigger chances because you’re supposed to learn from your mistakes. If I make a really big mistake, well then I’ll really learn something. I haven’t figured out the magic to do that yet. Maybe I’m not taking big enough chances. This new thing is a pretty big chance, because I’ve always been a child of a facility. And now I’m not going to have that. 

I do believe I can connect with people now in new ways though. With the Internet, we’re able to do work in ways we never could before. I can have a virtual facility. I can bid projects much bigger than me and then call my collaborators and, you know, “Hey man, I want to put together a 3D team to pull this off. And here’s what I’ll do. But here’s what I need.” And work that way. I’m excited about it. Especially because I have the best friends. There’s just so much talent in this town.

BEHR “True to Hue” for Pixel Farm

You mentioned going off and establishing your own thing? Do you know of other freelance Flame artists around town?

There might be one or two, but basically everyone else is at a facility. In Minneapolis, there are only … I don’t have a hard number. Let’s call it 12 to 15 seats of Flame. So there’s not a lot of open seats where they need people. But there are people that need vacation relief, and I will be available to the facilities in town for vacation relief or overflow. I’ll have a rate card for that; you know, amended because I’m working on their Flame at their place. On occasion these places hire people/operators from out of town too.

When I left Pixel Farm. I didn’t quite have a business plan, but I had a dream that had been festering in the back of my mind for a long, long time to open my own shop. My dad, who’s been dead for seven years now, always wanted me to do this. The last time I thought about doing it, he pushed really hard. He wanted to be an investor. I just couldn’t pull the trigger. The barrier to entry back then was like hundreds of thousands dollars. So I thought about it recently and decided the time was right.

In January, I pulled the trigger on a whole Linux  system from Cinesys, and a Flame subscription. I also licensed a set of Sapphire plugins.

I call my company the Flying T Editing Company. The name is a play on a cattle brand (I’m from Oklahoma — my grandpa was a cowboy). In fact, I literally have my own fire brand built by a ranch in North Dakota. I’ll be using it for promotional materials.

I’m going to offer visual effects, motion graphics, animation, visual effects supervision, shoot supervision, and creative editorial as needed. Some projects I’ll do the whole thing, and some will use my virtual network, my virtual facility, and we’ll see how that works.

Part of this whole adventure has also been that I want to make stuff for myself. I have some properties and some have a TV pilot I’ve been working on. I’m obsessed with Eadweard Muybridge. I want to do a film, some sort of weird documentary for our America Obscurus franchise. I want to make my own stories, in addition to working commercially to continue to do television advertising, I want to work with people that have things that need to be made that I believe need to be made. Maybe I have equity in it instead of taking a paycheck. And we make some just super cool stuff or we try some stuff, you know?

Having the best and latest/fastest workstation is part of my plan. I won’t go into the specs of my gear, but I am confident I have the most powerful visual effects and editing workstation in Minnesota for the time being.

What are you most excited about for the future? 

I’m excited about, and I’m also scared to death about, the fact that I’m not beholden to anyone. And that and I have no oversight or anyone to answer to for the first time in my life. I’m not even sure what that means. I have to figure out not leaving the house every day to go somewhere. I have to figure out how to roll out of bed and, you know, maybe I’ll leave my pajamas on. But I still have to have some order. I need to make sure I take a walk, eat some lunch, don’t get too wrapped up. I have to learn how to do the basics of working out of my house. 

You know, it’s time for me to invest in myself and at my age, I’m fifty six, I’m not embarrassed about it. I’m still loving my career! It’s time to invest in myself. But it’s harder to find people to invest in you. Let’s face it; you have to fit into their plans. Now I’ve got my own plans. All these new ways to work that you couldn’t do before. 

The New Standards Holiday Show – Snowballz

Are there any questions you wanted us to ask that we didn’t.

Well you didn’t ask me about my cowboy character and trick roping but that’s OK. I actually have a fire lariat and I don’t know how to use it yet. And you can’t get people to tell you how to use it, because it’s kind of a liability. 🙂

Like, you light it on fire?

You do. You use White Spirit or like Coleman camp stove fuel. It’s a kevlar rope. So you can light it but it won’t burn out. I’m going to shoot some branding elements with that once it gets a little more melty and warmer  around here. I’m going to shoot some burning roping elements. I told you earlier about my cattle brand made of my logo and I’m going to buy some leather from Tandy Leather and I’m going to do some branding shots on leather and get my friend to shoot it with his RED [digital camera] at high speed. I hope to have schwag that I burn for that cool patina.

I’m also planning a fire gag where I’m going to light myself on fire and ride a unicycle.

I have a safety officer, Brian Denny, who rode a motorcycle while on fire for a New Pornographers music video a few years back. He knows how to coordinate this. That’s a summer gag because the same safety gel you have to put on to not burn yourself, is very cold so I need to wait until it’s hot to do that. This is all because I am a Flame artist and my slogan is that I offer “A daring take on film and video editing, with visual effects and animation to boot!” I’m here to put my money where my mouth is, so please look for this stuff later in the year. I’m pretty confident it will look amazing.

This text has been edited for clarity and length.

Terminology Guide

  • Flame – A high-end VFX, compositing, and color grading software and hardware system that is designed to work in real time.
  • Offline Editing – Editing a copy of the raw footage so as not to modify the raw footage. The copied footage is usually a lower quality than the original, making it quicker to work with.
  • Online Editing – Once an offline edit has been approved, the final edit is assembled using the raw footage.
  • Avid – Refers both to a company and the system they created that pioneered digital non-linear editing.
  • SoftImage – An early 3D graphics program.
  • Telecine – Refers to both the process and the equipment used to transfer film to video.

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