All Together Now: Terrence Masson and the Coming Age of Collaboration

Terrence Masson talks about preparing educators and students through a pioneering new approach to interdisciplinary collaboration.

Masson is pioneering interdisciplinary collaboration at Northeastern University's Creative Industries. All images courtesy of Terrence Masson.

"The inter-connectivity of social media, the web, the interdisciplinary work between artists, programmers, and educators, all point to one thing; we're no longer in the Computer Age. We're in the age of Collaboration." So proclaims Terrence Masson, Keynote Speaker at the ISEA 2011 conference in Istanbul. This intriguing prophecy is hardly a surprise to those familiar with Masson's talks. Over the last few years, Masson has taught and traveled as a speaker, bringing his decades of experience in the film, game, and VFX industries to bear on evolving discussions of collaboration across the academic and professional worlds, and how technology is developing that bond.

The name Terrence Masson may not be familiar, but you’re sure to have seen his work. A creator, consultant, and teacher of VFX for more than 20 years, Masson boasts an impressive resume that includes credits on major features like Hook, Interview With the Vampire, True Lies, Batman Forever, Titanic, and many more. As a Sequence Supervisor at ILM, he helped oversee the 1990s re-release of the classic Star Wars Trilogy, consulted with Dreamworks SKG on a new cinematography pipeline for Aardman feature Flushed Away, and is credited with developing the now-iconic CG animation technique used in the television series South Park. Masson also has significant credits in the gaming field, having worked as Visual Effects Supervisor on high-profile games, including Batman: Dark Tomorrow, Alter Echo, and Midnight Club II, for Rockstar entertainment, as well as serving as Creative Director and Executive Producer on Sim City 4.

Now an Associate Professor and Director of Creative Industries at Northeastern University in Boston, Masson is pioneering a new approach to interdisciplinary collaboration in order to prepare educators, and their students, for this brave new world of ours. Recently, Masson took some time to let me pick his brain on convergence, academia, and where he thinks we’re headed.

Zoe Chevat: Let’s jump right in. One of the points you focused on in your talk at ISEA2011, and one you seem to return to, is the difference between cooperation and collaboration. Specifically, how to move back to collaboration, which has been overtaken by what you called "digital cooperation." What’s been the general reaction?

Terrance Masson: It's a fine point for some people to get, but it gets a lot of head nodding. It's not immediately obvious, especially with the democratization of software, making it both cheap and available, and creating specializations among artists and technicians. But, as someone who’s been a producer and director, you’re looking at [the production process] from "50, 000 feet." Having worked across so many different media types, short film, animation, video games, online media, film, VFX, having come up through the trenches, I can see where [the process] does and doesn't work. The variety of my experience provides me with a real lateral view.

ZC: Why the personal drive to collaborate? Where in your biography would you say is the genesis of this idea, the essential importance of collaboration, not just cooperation? Mostly from working in the mainstream film industry?

TM: A lot of it has to do with my undergraduate BFA. William Paterson was the only Computer Design program that was housed in the Art Program, which was very appealing. This was 1991; there was hardly any commercial software available, and accessibility was very limited. So I was exposed to critique, but that's true for anyone in a fine arts degree, being part of critiques. Being able to realize how my work stands against and compliments others’. It was a big influence.

Being in the traditional film industry is definitely a part of it. On Hook, which was my first film experience, we were working mainly on practical stages, doing pixie dust with a combination of practical effects and an early particle system, combined with by-hand animation in an in-house system. It was a real collaboration across old world and new, new tools, techniques, and people talking together. Most digital geeks weren't interested, because it's complicated enough to do your own job. But I was running back and forth between stages, and that’s where I got the bug for collaboration. I’m an especially inquisitive guy, I need to know, I'm always looking up info and data. I was so excited when the old-timers would come and ask us what we were doing. From there on, I sought out those opportunities.

Cubicles, the gopher syndrome, frustrates me. But, unfortunately, it's essential to have that kind of work set-up, especially with increased specialization and production deadlines being so tight.

Terrance tries to push students beyond their comfort zone, while telling them it's ok to fail.

ZC: You’ve stated that integrating different media forms is not what collaboration is about. For example, you would not like to see movies become interactive, like video games. There are however, certain similarities in their production processes. Likewise, you say, there are areas in their pipeline where the two fields could learn a great deal from each other. If there are so many production pipeline similarities between the digital film FX and gaming sectors, why is there a marked difference in the amount of collaboration that occurs?

TM: Nothing is more collaborative than being on a film set. It's always a machine, everyone working together in real time, everything going into making a real film. The whole thing’s guided by a director, or producer, but there's no handing off of anything at all, not really.

In VFX, these days, I don't know if there's much difference. It's nearly identical. The added collaboration that I would point out in gaming is the added elements of a.) game design, and the b.) the interactive nature of the media.

In film, you can work on one thing, locked down, as long as you want. But in gaming, after you lock things down in a linear format, you have to work with the real-time interactive variables. What if you run? What if you don't kill the monsters? It adds a whole 'nother layer. Then you need people to optimize it, to make those changes happen as you play. Everyone who is a part of it has to speak in that discussion. So there’s an added necessity of dialogue because of constraints.

 ZC: How did you make the move from industry consultant to teacher? What prompted this branch of your career?

TM: It was a very gradual thing. In the grad school lab, it was a very natural desire of mine to help others. Whenever you start out in a new company, you start out as a learner, and move to being the more experienced person in the company. I always liked being the person to share, never holding trade secrets close. I loved solving problems for my colleagues in my team, fixing it, feeling that satisfaction.

When I was first asked to do Artistic Portfolio reviews, for colleges, it seemed natural. It was a natural extension of my mentoring instinct. Talking to students, advising them so that they can chose where to go.

Out of that came some curriculum development consulting. As a person in the industry, I was getting asked, “How do our students get hired/learn what they need to know?” that sort of thing. I didguest lecturing in Berkeley, NYC, and Emeryville, where I did my first full-semester as a visiting lecturer, and caught the bug from that.

But that’s half of the whole reason. Being married with kids, the film production business is brutal. You’re project-to-project, which is unstable, you’ve got long hours. It’s not conducive to family life. In my case, it led to divorce. That’s happened to friends of mine, too. Lots of relationships suffer in the business. So, moving the moving family to Massachusetts so the kids could grow up next to their grandparents, that was important. I wanted to give them some more stability with a fresh start.

I started inquiring to universities about full-time teaching. I’d been the SIGGRAPH 2006 Computer Animation Festival Chair, and I took the festival on roadshow after the conference, showing at production companies, on campuses, all over. After a screening at Northeastern's campus, I talked to professors, and mentioned getting into education full-time. They were very enthusiastic. I started on a consulting contract to build an editing suite, and the rest…

ZC: Is history?

TM: Well, yeah!

Terrence was involved in designing the CG production pipeline used on South Park.

ZC: Where did the inspiration for Creative Industries come from?

TM: Northeastern had in place a multi-media studies program that was very, very progressive, very forward-thinking. They had started 12 years prior, really at the beginning of things. But they had stayed very small and stagnant. They saw the future, wanted to increase the program’s potential and impact. What I was brought in for was to take the basic photo/web design cornerstone they had, and build a house on top of it. Make it much, much bigger than it ever had been.

I tore it down curriculum-by-curriculum, transformed it into interactive media, game design, wrapped it into a single department. I wanted to get people out of the focus of Game Design, and expand how they think of it. It allows me to bring my entire career to bear, my understanding of those industries and connections, into curriculum, degrees, and students. Business plans, as well.

Right now, I’m on a committee for the Mayor of Boston, on how to develop the city’s Creative Economy. It's a privilege to help make that connection between city and University, of how to produce students that are appropriate to work in the ever-changing industry. It's still also the only state that has a state-level position for a "Creative Economy Industry Director." That says a lot about Massachusetts.

They’re reaching out, as well. I was part of a mission that went to Liverpool, through the British consulate, and exchanged business people and faculty.

 ZC: Creative Industries focuses on bringing together academic departments that may not be traditionally linked to one another. How does one overcome the sometimes conservative organizational attitudes of college administrations to establish something new?

TM: The key is agility- be ready for change. Great administrations can bring change, and guide it through rough waters.

When you get into the glacial and very academic minutiae, that's just the way, and it was the single hardest challenge for me, personally, going into the academic world. In production, I was used to making speedy decisions. It’s 180 degrees different. This is all about procedure and forming relationships. It literally takes years to change things that in the production world would take days. It's not easy, but I'm making the transition.

Initially the career academics said, "This is really different, and you don't understand how we do things here." But I found out really quick, with the politics, it's really exactly the same. It's about egos, priorities, I'm sure it's the same with every industry in the world.

 ZC: Pushing revolution and excellence means big risks. According to you, excellence should mean pushing your students to risk failing, without actually letting them fail. How can educators achieve this to push students to the next level? Is it a matter of experience?

TM: The revolutionary aspect of it is almost a universal challenge, or should be. Meaning, it's really hard in Hollywood to get an original script produced. Anything that isn't a sequel, a franchise, people keep at arm's length and don't want anything to do with it.

Academia is no different, but is all persuasive. I've been lucky that the vast majority of senior leadership have been supportive of the "revolution", because the benefits are so obvious and so huge. Every industry has people who are entrenched in the way things are, and there's nothing you can do about that. Unfortunately, that small minority take up take up 98% percent of your time.

With students, it is really hard. I try to push them beyond their comfort zone, while telling them it's ok to fail. If you never fail, it means you always took baby steps, and what's the fun in that? There's no way to know your limits until you bend past them. It's just a dialogue of expectations. Be easy and straightforward. Expose them to the best of all media. As available as things are, people stay in their comfort zones, and impose limits of themselves. If you throw them a curveball, show them something else out there that's successful, that they've never heard of, it blows their mind. Your goal is to re-set the level of expectation against the world's excellence.

I totally subscribe to the tiny little blue marble metaphor. Our similarities far outweigh our differences. I've been lucky to travel and speak with students all over the world. The cultural differences are fascinating, and inform creative output. There are so many ways North American thinking is vanilla, and it's because we don't have the exchange of cultures that say, Europe does. We have so much of a "do it like it's been done before" in North America, and that starts in the classroom.

For God's sake, be original. You can go and animate something that no one has ever done before. Why in the world do something that's been done before, when you can do something completely new, that's never been imagined?

I see the best of the best every year. Those things that excite me are those rare jewels that do something different than anything I've seen before. Those original twists are so rare, that they stand out dramatically. I tell my students, "Think big, have large horizons."

Terrence delivering a Keynote at SIGGRAPH 2010.

ZC: Finally, where do you see the film/VFX/gaming/social media cross-pollination taking us in the near future? Not the integration of those forms, but the way they are taking cues from one another. Some predictions, based on what you're seeing in the industry, and from your students?

TM: If I knew for sure, I'd be a very rich man! The only constant is change. The only thing I know is that things will be very different in 5 years.

More and more, we’re going to see the universal utilization of collaboration. No more silos. Look at Creative Industries, where we're working with more and more departments across the whole university in such a wide variety of areas; journalism, music, architecture. There’s almost no department on campus that isn't eagerly awaiting collaboration. It's not about watering things down to be the same, but rather sticking with core principles, and letting the collaboration enrich the experience, let it excite and engage young people. You do that, you'll change the world overnight. The next ten years is going to go by like a blink.

For more information visit Northeastern's site on Creative Industries, at http://www.northeastern.edu/ci/, or Terrence's own site, http://www.visualfx.com

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Zoe Chevat is a Los Angeles-based animator, graphic artist, sculptor, and author of both academic and fictional work. Originally from northern New Jersey, she graduated from Bennington College and is currently an MFA candidate in Experimental Animation at CalArts. She has worked on music videos and shorts for AfterEd TV, UnBroiled Inc., and Ariel Hart/DeMille Productions, as well as the anthological Today's Forecast, which debuted at the Internationale Kurzfilmtage, Oberhausen, Germany. A proud cinephile, she has been blogging about gender and film/video media for female geek-oriented newsblog The Mary Sue, and has been a recurring guest on a new podcast series for Anime News Network, entitled "Chicks on Anime." Most of her critical writing is concerned with the portrayal of sexuality and gender in genre work, with a particular focus on trope subversion for fun and profit. She provides a ground-level insider's view on the new generation of animation fans and creators, with an eye to negotiating that tricky space between high and low art…or at least to rattling some cages along the way. For more rants, spewings, and inky scribbles, follow along at http://www.zoechevat.com.

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