Interview with David Biedny

David Biedny is a leading digital effects, graphics and multimedia expert. Working at Industrial Light and Magic, he produced digital effects and has also been a key interface/feature consultant/beta tester for many of the major multimedia tools currently on the market, including Photoshop (David was user #4, spec'd many of the key features of the product, and was included in the credits for Photoshop 1.0). He has also been credited with helping conceive the "Power Macintosh" name.

While at Industrial Light and Magic, you produced digital effects for various movies. What are the biggest challenges you faced when working on these movies?

I was at ILM for only just under a year, but with the 80-100 hour weeks, it was more like a couple of working years for normal people. When I got there - in early 1991 – the opticals department was still the primary source for image compositing inside the company, and there were people at ILM who thought that the 2D digital department was a fluke, a little less than viable in the long term. It’s hard to believe, but the resistance inside of the company meant that we constantly had to prove ourselves to management. A technique I developed to deal with a problem bluescreen shot in Terminator 2 - a bluescreen element with significant motion blur - ended up being finaled on take 1, which to my knowledge, was the only shot ILM produced for that movie that held that particular distinction. The movie The Rocketeer was in production at the same time, and opticals was having a terrible problem getting a clean composite of the little flying Rocketeer puppet, so the effects supervisor for the film, Ken Ralston, came marching into the 2D digital department and stated that even though he felt that we were not “viable”, he would give us “a chance” to fix one of these problem motion blur shots. Because of the T2 shot, the task fell on me, and it ended up looking pretty good on the first pass. Ken saw the shot in dailies, and declared that it looked “too good”, and that I had to reintroduce a visible edge to the puppet, so that it would match the other shots that opticals had already finished. I laughed, and told him that it made a lot more sense for us to fix all the shots, so that they would all look “too good”. I’ll never forget the look on Ken’s face. The opticals department vanished a few years later.

What was the last movie you saw where you looked at the effects and thought they were amazing and a blockbuster with fancy effects that made you yawn?

Well, it’s important to realize that visual effects are all about supporting the story. I know that George Lucas goes to great lengths to make that same statement, but when you look at the Star Wars movies, it seems like the story is almost an afterthought, and the effects are the main event. Yes, they look great, but that’s about it. It makes you wish that Lucas would let someone else take the directorial reins and put the awesome talent inside of ILM to working on a truly great film. I think that Peter Jackson has emerged as the leading visionary in the realm of melding effects and story, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy bears that out. When the Gollum animated character appeared in the second film, it was clear that ILM had been leapfrogged in the race to create a truly compelling, fully digital pseudo-humanoid character. And then there’s Brad Bird and The Iron Giant. Talk about the perfect synergy of a traditional 2D cel look and 3D animation, all wrapped around a lovely story. It’s as close to a perfect “effects” movie as I’ve ever seen.

You have been credited with helping conceive the "Power Macintosh" name. Give us some details on this.

I was asked by Apple to be one of the seed sites for the original PowerPC Macs, the machines that represented the transition from the 680X0 architecture to the PowerPC RISC chip. At the time, Apple was primarily signing up potentially large customers as seed sites (a couple of accounting firms, an engineering company, a financial firm, you get the idea), while the only two “smaller” players were myself and Michael Backes, who is infamous in the Hollywood world as a Mac geek and innovator. So we would periodically convene down at Apple for focus group meetings, technical discussions, marketing feedback, all the stuff Apple had signed us up for.

There was one meeting where the topic was the naming and branding of the machine. They asked us the following question: “what do you think of the name Power Quadra?”, which was apparently the name that Apple marketing was sweet on. Around the table, one by one, the guys from the big companies were nodding, saying, “yeah, good name, the Quadra is the high end of the Mac line, and that makes these the most high end machines”, yada yada. The whole time, I sat there quietly steaming and awaiting my turn. The thing is, I knew that the name “Quadra” had cost Apple a cool $50,000 in consulting fees to a branding company that based the name on the 4 in 68040, the chip that was in the Quadra machines. No one, not even Apple marketing, seemed to be aware of this. Anyway, when it came to my turn, I let loose. “Do any of you people know why a Quadra is called a Quadra? Where in 601 (the designation of the first PowerPC chip) do you see a 4? And do you really want to be one behind the Pentium”? I was getting loud at that point, really forceful, and I started banging my hand on the table and yelled, “dammit, call it a frikkin Power Mac and be done with it already”. I caught my breath and realized that everyone was staring at me quietly, afraid of getting me even more worked up. The last one to speak was Backes, and he smiled and pointed at me, proclaiming, “what David said”.

So it turned out that they had been videotaping the whole thing from behind a one way glass mirror. Cut to months later, I was at a Seybold Seminars show at Moscone Center in San Francisco where Apple was going to announce the Power Mac line. I was standing in the restroom doing my business, when I realized that there was a guy standing near the sink, staring at me, smiling. I turned around and asked him if I could help him with something. Turns out it was an Apple executive who told me, “no, but perhaps I can help you”. He told me that he recognized me from the video they had shot, that the engineers had been trying to tell marketing about the issues I had brought up at that meeting but that no one really paid any attention to them until they saw that video. He told me that the internal presentation at Apple where the naming decision was announced opened with that clip of me freaking out and demanding that they call it “Power Macintosh”, and that I was a hero to the engineering team. He also told me that they had something special planned for me, and when it came time to give back the seed hardware (which was a pizza box 6100), they gave me a brand new 8100 in exchange. I was the only seed site that got a free machine. Oops, that was supposed to be a secret. Darn.

You are an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop. In your professional opinion, what are the features that make Photoshop the leading application in its field and what would you like to see in future versions?

Well I always thought that breaking an image into component channels was an amazing thing, and really differentiated Photoshop from everything else out there when it first came across my desk, which was a while before Adobe knew about it. I still feel that this aspect of Photoshop is uniquely compelling, and have yet to see a better implementation in any other software. The plugin architecture was also instrumental in establishing Photoshop as a highly extensible program, and nowadays plugins and modular software seem to be well ingrained in software culture. This really wasn’t the case before Photoshop came onto the scene. I would really like to see more third parties come to the Photoshop plugin sandbox and play, but it seems that there has been a decrease in the number of Photoshop developers, which I feel is unfortunate.

As far as the future of Photoshop, I feel very strongly that many of the features and the overall architecture of Adobe After Effects represents a superior approach to handling large amounts of data, as well as offering a more powerful layering metaphor and the incredible flexibility of being able to attach any filter, even those from third parties, onto an Adjustment Layer, for non-destructive filtering. I would love to see Photoshop gain some of the benefits of After Effects. Smart Objects in CS2 is a move in the right direction. I would also love to see a next-generation interface for Calculations, but I’m apparently in a minority here. I’m always bracing myself for the eventual removal of the existing Calculations commands altogether, which will be a sad day indeed.

In August you started the Attention Photoshoppers! Podcast. What has been the response of the Photoshop community? What kind of content can we expect in the future?

The response has been encouraging, but it’s really fresh and in it’s infancy, so we’ll see what happens over the next year. Clearly, there’s demand for this show, as the stuff I’ve heard so far addressing this audience seems primarily designed to sell products and services of Photoshop user organizations. I have no commercial agenda for the show, I simply wanted a place to express myself without editorial restrictions or limitations. You should expect to hear some interviews soon – the best radio happens with more than a single voice – and there will be some special episodes concentrating on specific topics, such as plugins. And I’ll always be thinking about even better ways to do the “Over the Shoulder” segments, to make them more useful and visual for teaching concepts and specific techniques.

One of your activities is working as a contributing author for MacAddict where your reviews are published. What is it like having new stuff to test every month? What are the perks of doing this job?

As you would expect, it’s fun to constantly get packages of goodies in the mail, though I’ll qualify this - I’ve been reviewing products for over 20 years now, so I guess I’m a little jaded. It’s great to keep current with the scene, and keeps me focused on understanding the state of the industry and where it’s going. I really live for this stuff. I didn’t originally get into technology because I thought it was a way to make lots of money, I ended up in this field because of a lifelong fascination with knobs, circuits and electronics. That I can earn any kind of living at all is great, but I would probably be doing this even if it didn’t feed me and keep me warm in the winter.

What are your plans for the future? Perhaps a new book?

The craziness around my last book, Photoshop Channel Chops, has made me consider revising that book. The issue that keeps me from doing it yesterday is the current publishing model - a typical book publisher keeps the vast majority of the money, which I think needs to change, given the relatively small risk they take on any given book project. We’ll see what happens with Channel Chops, it might end up being a perfect candidate for self-publishing. And I would love to concentrate more on my first love, music. Never enough time to play with all my guitars, synthesizers and weird pedals. Weird noises keep me going!
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4:50 PM

Great interview! A lot of juicy info, loved the Power Mac part.    



5:34 PM

Thanks! I'm glad you enojoyed it. David really is an amazing guy.

I'm planning more interviews in the future.    



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