Specialized Profession-LiveI'm Fon Davis, VFX artist from Fonco Studios. I've worked on 30-plus movies including Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars and the Matrix series, and I'm also a judge on Battlebots. Ask me anything!
Oct 26th 2017 by fonhdavis • 29 Questions • 7747 Points
My short bio:
Our indie game development company turned 5 years old today. Two years ago we were at the brink of bankruptcy with my brother, after 3 years of work we had $50 000 in debt. Today, after a long series of events caused by a Reddit post and Redditors rushing to help, I paid it off, and our company is now debt-free!
5 years ago I had embarked on an unpredictable journey with my brother, after one year of hard work we managed to release our very first game accompanied by a lot of excitement. Excitement soon turned to disappointment, total sales ended up at $1000. After some contemplation, we decided we were not ready to give up on our dream.
However, to give ourselves a chance, we needed to take a loan of $50 000. Through a series of coincidences, a third person appeared in our lives, and it quickly dawned upon us he had been the missing link. We grabbed him with us and started on a new game, which in hindsight ended up taking way too much time. After almost two years of work our second game was released and ended up with $2000 in total sales.
Devastated and with very limited funds left, we made a 180 degree turn in our strategy. Despite everyone stating premium games were dead, we decided to try anyway. We realized spending time trying to figure out how to milk money from customers wasn't for us. We wanted to create a game, ask a fair one-time price and let players play without restrictions.
Time was ticking, and we were developing our most ambitious game yet. We stretched as far as we could, but we eventually ran out of funds. With only $1000 left on our company account, I called our landlord and canceled our office tenancy agreement ahead of time. We thought we were done.
But fate would have it otherwise. In my darkest moment I decided to post here on Reddit, and found myself overwhelmed from all the help we received from you Redditors. With your help our then released game (Battlevoid: Harbinger) was to send out a message to the world that the story of this small indie game development company was not yet over, and today I can happily state the game has sold over 150 000 copies across all platforms. It feels so surreal after many years of struggle.
Through our story I want to encourage you to follow your dreams. You don't have to be super smart or know everything to try something you really want to do. We made so many mistakes on our journey, but persistence kept us alive. Let your passion guide you, stay persistent and be ready to learn new things every day.
The gaming industry is ruthless, and we continue on one game at a time. Today we released a new game into our "Battlevoid" series on Steam, Google Play and Apple App Store and once again we are excited to see how it will fare out there among all the other games. Feel free to ask me anything about our journey, our games, game development in general or the gaming industry!
My Proof: Battlevoid Twitter
Fon, you don't look a single day older than when I met you almost 20 years ago. WTF?
Congrats. I feel like I'm you before the big successful part... so um, you hiring?
Hey Adam!!! Thanks for the kind words. I may not look older, but I am feeling it. LOL! You look great too!
We're not big and successful yet, just out of the hole that we were in and really happy to be able to continue developing games.
Hiring, huh! Are you willing to move to Finland?
Some people get all the luck! Did you two work together on anything, or was it just a meeting due to your professions? u/fonhdavis can you shed some light?
Hey! I played your game. Pretty awesome!
Adam Savage, Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci and I all worked together on several great movies at the ILM model shop. There are some great pictures of us together and a pretty fun BTS short called "Dig This" in the Matrix Revolutions boxed set featuring very young Adam and I. LOL!
Hi! That's awesome, did you find any bugs?
Where should someone like me who is interested in VFX go to get started? I’m currently in high school, and we don’t have any classes that offer anything that could be of use to me. I’ve been doing amateur 3D work in Cinema 4D for a few years but this is just a hobby as of now, and I’d like to learn more.
Is it a coincidence or does finland have some kind of advantages for indie game developers? I swear 5 posts I see about people developing a game either lives or moves to finland
They have great classes on the Stan Winston School website, Gnomon and I have educational DVDs on Amazon. My advice, study like your a sponge and start creating projects. Build a portfolio of the best quality work you can do and never stop trying. Never stop learning and challenging yourself. This industry is always changing and you have to change with it. If you work hard and you're nice to people, you will get the jobs.
Finland has opportunities, much more so than other countries for sure I would say. Much of this is thanks to Rovio and Supercell I would say, sparking a real interest in investing in gaming companies and trying to nurture them.
What was your favorite movie to work on and why?
Have you ever considered making a multiplayer game? Also I recommend linking your patreon or starting a kickstarter for a new game, I imagine it would be very successful
That's tough one! My favorite changes with my mood, but I'd say Nightmare Before Christmas, the Star Wars series, Galaxy Quest and Starship Troopers ore my top 4, mostly because I still enjoy watching them and they were fun to work on.
A future Kickstarter has been on our minds regarding Space Haven! As a form of getting alpha testers.
Did you always want to work in the movie industry? What pulled you to the VFX department?
I have never heard of this game series.. But it looks awesome! Good job! My question is: Where do you see your franchise heading in the future?
Yes, in my mind I will do this to the day I die. I love my work. I was originally drawn to it when I saw the Star Wars BTS specials. I saw model makers working on the movie, and thought, that's a job?! I want that job!!!
It all depends on how this newest one, Battlevoid: Sector Siege manages to capture the interest of our community and new players. As long as there is interest there is always a chance we will do more into the series.
We have been working on a new and really ambitious project on the side as well. It's called Space Haven, and it's inspired by Rimworld, X-Com and FTL.
You can check out a dev blog we have for it. Starting with this post to see some screenshots: Space Haven Screenshots
Hi Fon, could you talk about the process for creating the bookshelves/multiple timelines scenes for Interstellar? One of my favorites. Thanks!
Thanks for the response. How about now, since you have a few more people? Are you more into game design, or do you also do development?
What does it take to have a successful team? Your history mentioned you and your brother found a 3rd person who seemed to be the missing link. Why so? Was it the ideas or expertise the other person brought to the table?
Sorry for all the questions, I've considered making games as well for many yeara, but it never seems like the "right" time, and I can never put together a committed team.
I wish I could. I worked on the miniatures unit for Interstellar at New Deal Studios. We created many of the spacecrafts and blew things up for the movie. I love blowing things up!!! LOL!!!
I'll just give you this one image and let it explain why he was the missing link: Sector Siege title art
I'm always amazed by the work he does. He made our games look how we wanted them to look. Actually, we had no idea, but when we saw what he made we were like Yes!
Finding a committed team is extremely hard, that is why so many games fail to deliver in the end. Execution is key, and without a committed team it's impossible. Developing great games take anywhere from 1-4 years, people doing it need to be very committed and stay focused. It's not easy.
I really hope you find the right people, but I think you don't really know if you are around right people until shit hits the fan and you see how they react. Are they willing to push or do they just say: "screw it all", I'm out of here.
What does it take to have a successful team? I think it takes one person knowing what that is, what kind of people are needed and how to keep them motivated and work with everyone's strengths and weaknesses.
I don't think there is ever a right time, there's just now or later. You got to take a risk to have a chance to win!
Hello Mr. Davis, fan of your work and projects. If I could ask, what ever happened to Mouser Mecha CatBot?
How do you feel about what happened to hello games involving NMS?
Thanks! Mouser retired after the Comedy Central Battlebots went off the air. Since the new show has no lightweight category, Mouser is not likely to come back.
I feel like they promised too much compared to what they were able to deliver, at least from all of the info I was able to gather and read. It felt like the game would have needed a year or two of more development to reach the stage that was promised.
All in all I feel the feeling of anger from players was justified.
Most underrated bot from the reboot of battlebots or one rule you would change?
How are the dynamics between the 3 of you? Is the third partner a friend or someone you found with the necessary skills you needed?
Judging from comments on Twitter, I'd say Chomp is the most underrated. Its an unusual design and looks a little awkward, but take a closer look at the design and it's quite brilliant.
We realized we couldn't do graphics all that well. So I went hunting for someone and found the guy at a university. We chatted for a little bit, but then the event continued and we got separated. Just as he was about to leave the event I shouted to him and asked if he would like to come have a look at our office.
If I would have missed him then it would have been a whole other story. He's been crucial to our success, the missing link. Someone who can make great graphics.
I came here from r/linux_gaming. I don't want to pry, but I'm curious: what do your Linux sales numbers look like? Are they more than you would have expected, or less?
The one project that stands out for me is not what you'd expect. It was the Brisk Machete commercial with Danny Trejo. Designing the big mechanical gags in to that set was challenging in the best possible way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onZy29z3jso
Linux sales is 2% of total sales currently. Hehe, I would say less! But I'm happy to support it.
and we few are very VERY happy that you support linux. Gonna check out your games after work ;)
It depends on how much I have been working, but in general I really enjoy a good brunch out with mimosas, followed by watching movies and playing video games with friends and my girlfriend.
...when I had one. LOL!
Thank you! :)
What do you use to make your games and how does the process start?
I was always drawn to creating things and solving problems. As soon as I discovered I could do that for a living, I set my sights on VFX as a career. It was 7 years old when I decided to pursue specifically miniature VFX. At age 25 I was in the ILM model shop living my dream. I had to create new dreams and now run my own production studio in Los Angeles. What a journey it has been.
I used Unity to start. First step was to look up Unity tutorials and follow them, creating simple games. From there I decided to make my own project with what I had learned. Every time I stumbled upon a problem I opened the browser and started googling.
I learned more by reading solutions to my problems online and after 14 months I had a game together! I worked 12 hours 6 days a week, so that made it come together a bit faster.
Have you considered doing a 3D game? Unity makes this quite simple.
It happened gradually, but looking back I'd say it was getting hired to work on Nightmare Before Christmas. It was my first feature film and an incredible opportunity to work with an amazing crew, learn and build an amazing portfolio.
Yes, but we kind of like 2D! Perhaps in the future.
What makes the best battlebot?
What is the last thing you feel you wasted money on?
How do you feel about nachos? Side question, do you feel it should be spelled nachoes?
Perhaps 3D graphics games which are restricted to 2D plane? Like Smash Bros or many RTS games?
The Best Battlebot is destructive and looks cool The last thing I wasted money on was a Disneyland Annual pass, but no regrets. Be there every week. LOL! I love nachos covered in at least 4 toppings, but do not believe they should be spelled nachoes, nachose or nahchoz.
What visual effect are you very proud of?
Are you able to point at VFX in movies and tell 'I did that' or is it all team work?
I have less than 20k in debt. You mind taking on that as well?
I am very proud of so many shots! I have been on over 30 feature films at this point. the Elysium Raven crash was pretty epic, the Mjolner crash in Matrix Revolutions and the exploding space station in Interstellar were also favorites. I can say I worked on that, but not I did that. Our work does rely heavily on teamwork. We get close and starts to even feel like family after enough time working together.
Not right now, maybe later!
So I loved the first game and had you on my list of favourite indie devs. Now with todays release you guys are charging twice as much for the game on steam, and I have to buy it twice, instead of once with a key for any other device? It feels like a metaphorical slap in the face.
Rocket smashing his spacecraft through another one. That was the best fire ball I have ever witnessed. So much so I did a lap shaking everyone's hands on set after watching playback. It was an exciting night shoot at New Deal Studios.
Unfortunately we cannot provide keys for other platforms. Additionally, we are forced to ask a lower price on mobile to sell units and stay on lists to stay alive and be able to continue developing games. It's just the way it is. Hope you understand.
How do you guys get the word around about your game ? More importantly how do you take care of consumer satisfaction ?
Thanks for the kind words. I won't lie, its always nice to be complimented, but at the end of the day I am really just a person like everyone else, never as cool as my social media.
We mail a lot of places. Youtubers and press. It's really hard tough, you really need to have an interesting game to have a chance.
We have built our community over years and that's the best way to spread the word. We do it by reading what they write regarding our games and try to fulfill many of their wishes, this creates solid fans who are ready to help.
What advise do you have for directors working with visual effects artists?
I have a huge respect for your craft as it's essentially one that, when done well, is overlooked or not noticed.
In your opinion, what are some contributing factors to the decline of cooperative gaming? Seems like with online gaming, it would be more easily implemented, but rather than mission mode co-op, we continually have mediocre single player with arena battle online options. Call of Duty World at War was a great teamwork testing game.
I'm not a programmer, so I'm asking, why is it so often not a feature in the shooters, let alone a game built around cooperation?
My favorite director technique for VFX is done in 3 steps while always focusing on the story telling.
- Shoot everything you can full size in-camera until physics, budget or schedule prevent it.
- Then shoot everything you can using miniatures until physics, budget or schedule prevent it.
- Then use CGI till fill in the the rest.
Hmm. Well, generally you can see games shifting with trends and with what sells. Take a look at Steam top charts and you see these battle royale games a lot.
If there's a demand the supply will follow. Perhaps the demand for co-op is there but it's not big enough to make developers put in the time and effort.
It's a shame because I would also like to play some great co-op game.
Hello Fon! Any news on MORAV? What became of those awesome models? Cheers, a Bay Area mecha fan
Any plans for a release outside of steam?
MORAV was put on hold when I relocated from SF to LA, but we are developing some top secret stuff for it again now.
We have it on Google Play and Apple App Store. If GoG approves our submission it will be there too!
Hell, I'm happy for you guys. good on you for pursuing your dreams and finding success.
Space Haven perked my interest. How management based would you say it will be? I have a penchant for tycoon games, but on mobile it's often just a case of build the next thing and wait. I want something more like theme hospital, with challenge.
Either way, I'm happy to support you, have a 4 hour flight later today so I'll buy battlevoid sector siege. Hope it's kind on my battery life!
That's funny story actually. When I was on Nightmare Before Christmas I was assigned a snows-cape to sculpt out of foam. I did not like it so created it as fast as I could to get back on other more interesting tasks. When I finished my boss said "Wow, you are so fast, I am giving you all the snow-scapes in the movie to do." So I spent many months sculpting foam snow-scapes. I did develop a sense of pride, creating them, but it was also tedious.
Something a bit more towards Rimworld is what we're trying to achieve. A lot of focus on the characters, but also management. It's like taking a base building game but you get to move that base all the time :)
Fantastic. Well I loved rimworld so that definitely sounds enticing.
What would you say you are doing that will make me play it instead of Rimworld (if I'm honest I'm concerned a game of that type that is also available on mobile would lose depth and therefore longevity in its appeal).
I love hanging out with my friends and oddly being creative, making things, just like I am at work. More specifically, movies, video games, really good food, the gym, theme parks and theme restaurants.
We're developing Space Haven PC first. PC is the main focus and we will do everything in our power to bring it to mobile too. We will try our best to make the whole experience different enough compared to Rimworld to make it exciting. There's a lot of possibilities to do so since the setting is different. Rimworld is on a planet while Space Haven is set on space ships.
Remember, FTL is on mobile too :)
I love special effects - especially the pre-CG stuff! Thanks for making what is basically magic. I got hooked when I understood how they made the hair grow in American Werewolf in London by pulling it through a latex skin and reversing the footage.
When you were a kid, what effects impressed you the most? What movies or scenes stick out? Are practical effects going away? I've heard that there is a desire from audiences to see more practical stuff, and I hope I am correct.
Fair point, though I'd say FTL is very different from Rimworld and maybe more easily moved over.
Either way don't mean to give you a hard time, just intrigued about your thought process and intentions. Either way clicking buy on sector siege on playstore... now!
I was most impressed with the Empire Strikes Back, Alien and Blade Runner. I don't think practical is going away any more than actors are getting replaced with CGI. There is still a very good place for using practical effects to tell a story.
Thanks :) hope you like it!
What kind of hours do you and your people put in once production starts?
How do those hours compare to the CGI folks?
Hey if I'm not too late, I've been following you guys bc I liked the past battle void game, but haven't looked at the details of sector siege. Can you tell me what differences there are between games and why should I buy this new one?
Thanks, keep up the great work
we try to keep 8 hour days in production, but once a production fits full speed, shoot days average 12 hours daily with the occasional crazy deadline push driving teams to work 16 to 18 hour days at times. CGI has been similar in my experience.
Hello! In short Sector Siege is much more of a light starcraft type of game compared to Harbinger. Here is a list of differences:
Max 10 ships + 8 stations to command in Sector Siege versus 3 ships in Harbinger.
Marines added to ships.
Boarding feature added, both the player and the AI can board.
Capture points added, generating resources.
Old and new ships.
Turrets are mostly the same. Area of effect added.
Fog of war added.
Seamless saving and loading added, save and load at any time. Cross-platform save/load support.
Ability to capture all enemy units and stations added, and it's possible to start building them once you have one captured.
1 new race, the Guardians added.
All alien races may warp in to a fight and attack any other race. This means alien races will be fighting each other too.
Skirmish game mode with 2v2 added, you can play with an alien ally.
Star map is not randomized, but a lot of the elements inside a sector are randomized. Sector Siege is all about what happens inside a sector, and one sector play can easily take 30-60 min. A campaign has 25 sectors.
You can build up the Battlestation.
Defense missions added.
Skirmish also has defense mission and you can play against endless enemy waves trying to reach a high score.
HI THERE! I never would have thought I'd be lucky enough to see a live AMA on VFX pop up.
Are VFX jobs in the film/movie industry the generally the most successful ones? What are some of the VFX related jobs outside the film/movie industry you can name that you find interesting and worth taking note of?
Also, what is your thoughts and opinions on the future of VFX and the direction that is is heading in?
Thanks so much for doing this AmA!!!
I think you can have success in almost any area of the industry if you are driven and kind to people, VFX included. I have know idea where VFX or even where I will be in the future. It's one of the things I like so much about it.
Your welcome, I'm glad you are here.
I want my children to get interested in robots because I think it could a fun and interesting career choice for them in the future. Do you have any suggestions on what to start them off with? They're ages 9 and 10 by the way.
I'd say get them a subscription to Make: magazine and see what they show interest in.
Are you a Star Wars fan and if so, what was it like to work in that franchise?
I grew up a huge fan of Star Wars. Working on them was interesting and different than I pictured it to be. I thought it would be nostalgic, but most of the time we were just focused on getting the work done. That being said sometimes I'd take a step back and let the 7 year old in me smile from cheek to cheek.