Discovering Ian Hubert, Blender, and low-budget VFX mastery

Meet Ian Hubert, Blender VFX artist, builder of worlds, astounder of accountants. Our dreams can be bigger than we imagine.
Huge SF dock complex by Ian Hubert

What are visual effects? Can they ever love us back? Nearly ten years ago, Ian Hubert turned up on YouTube with a science fiction web series called Dynamo. To us old-fashioned narrative peeps, the episode looks like a mess. Turn it off when your head hurts.

The visuals are stunningly intricate. The whole project is built in Blender, a free and open-source 3D computer graphics software toolset developed over 20 years from a core group in Holland. While it feeds the games community’s passion for lush technologies, hyper-vigilance and stomach-churning physics, it is not actually an interactive tool. That space belongs to Unreal Engine, though they are often combined.

We want long form, now!

In the nineties, Blender was a commercial project, which was dragged through financial crises until the final shareware owner went bankrupt in 2002. It was saved by open-source. The program has found a place in the ‘professional’ toolkit and showed off its chops on animation feature Next Gen and TV series The Man in the High Castle.

All fine, all conventional, but just a station along the way. The real goal is to tell feature and long-form stories entirely in Blender, which is radically cheaper than any alternative. Then the whole production world is different.

From its open-source base, Blender has been trying to complete a proof-of-concept feature film for at least a decade. It seems to have three stuck in limbo, but the story of Ian Hubert and his evolving web series titles shows you just how close they are. He has come much further than Dynamo.

Hubert comes from the Pacific Northwest in the USA, and started the animation work on the film with collaborator Scott Hampson in 2011, some four years after the storyworld seeded itself in his receptive brain.

It sat somewhere in a cortical corner while he made the independent science fiction film Project London which came out in 2013. He would learn a lot more about performance, writing and the integration of the look between scenes, but it does showcase a true micro-budget approach to fantasy world-building. The complete film is available on Youtube.

Lots of relentless baby steps

Hubert segued into Dynamo, which is almost as long as a feature film. The whole series is carried on the KarmaPirates which looks like an attempt at a community which the cool kids didn’t want to join.

‘What is Dynamo?’ the text asks.

‘It’s like a sequence of events (but not in that order). It’s like an array of words and representational images. It’s an experiment. It’s a story. It’s a series of shorts. It’s a sci-fi/fantasy/’cute cyberpunk’ webseries. It’s the result of four years of late night discussions between friends. It’s a convoluted puzzle about the nature of reality (and monsters! and horrible romance!) It’s a narrative with layers of interlocking pieces. It’s the best thing we know how to make- and it’s pretty wacky!’

The first episode had 144,000 views. Respectable in its field.

In 2016 Hubert was officially adopted by Blender, which supported him to make the one film which presumably had a budget involving a reasonable amount of cash. This came from the company, private supporters, and the Netherlands Film Fund, all wrangled by producer Ton Roosendaal who originally created the Blender and Traces software. The film, like all of these clips, combines live-action and CGI.

By episode six of Dynamo, Hubert produced a how-to video, which at least tells us he lurks with a small coven in the woods outside Port Orchard In Washington, which is being turned into a ‘little hub of creativity and cozy living. Part home, part film studio, concert venue, film set, maker space, and art gallery. I’m living here with my partner Kaitlin Romig (a talented artist photographer, fine artist, and art director!’ This comes from his Patreon site, which helps to explain how he has been supporting himself.

Dynamo Dream takes us to now

He began working on the sequel (at least technically) Dynamo Dream, and embarked on a three-year journey to make at least one 21 minute episode. In fact, he did better – the actual work took 16 months for an hour of material.

He added more details about himself in a lecture he gave to a theatre full of excited tech-heads. They think he is fantastic, which reassured me that this small journey to find the true self behind Ian Hubert will lead me to the promised land of clicks for ScreenHub.

‘I’m Ian Hubert. I’ve been doing visual effects and making wacky stuff for like 25 years. In 2012 I had the crazy opportunity to work with some of the coolest people I’ve ever met on on Tears of Steel. Within the last couple of months I started making these Lazy Tutorial things, because what is cool about CGI is when you learn a new thing, like simulating cloth and using it… It’s bite sized pieces and a lot of that involved just camera mapping and image textures and stuff.’

When I found his 2016 VFX showreel, I understood nothing, except the strangeness of the mind within.

‘What are visual effects? Are they illusion? Are they fantasy? Are they a dream? Nightmare?

The scream in the darkest shadow of an unlit room, echoing through the windows of our collective subconscious at night, whispering quiet reassurances. You’ll be alright, you’ll be alright….

.… What are visual effects? Can they ever love us back?’

On May 26 2021 he came out with the 21-minute first episode of Dynamo Dream, all done in a shed and a computer and tiny corner with a green screen. Some people claim it is pretty languid with virtually no forward movement. What matters to me about this episode is the amazingly intricate storyworld, a kind of vegetable steampunk somewhere between Peter Jackson’s Mortal Engines and Blade Runner.

The list of Santa’s Little Helpers on this project is short. The only major department which is not just him is costumes, run by Kaitlin Romig. There are three graphic designers and seven in the VFX crew, with six photo-scanned character models and eight people to thank. Although Hubert is also a musician, I think the soundtrack does make the story a bit flaccid.

My quest to find Ian Hubert on conventional sites like LinkedIn failed. His Facebook page is focused strongly on his technical mastery. Rokaku, who supplied him with a free full body mocap suit to build Dynamo Dream, posted a ninety minute interview with a basic introduction, proving that these uber-nerds have no interest in who Hubert actually is, even as he is adored.

Ian is a self taught VFX master, which I think is appropriate, who has been working in blender [since 2004]. In addition to working on music videos for Ed Sheeran and films like Prospect [SF, he was VFX supervisor], Ian has been pioneering a style of VFX revolving around maximum realism, with minimum cost in terms of computing and manpower…

Learnings, there must be learnings

Storyworlds are the foundation of any linear project, and these are a blast. Ian Hubert demonstrates that we can go a long way with lots of open-source labour, computers and the right software. But he seems to be stuck at the bottom edge of a problem.

To improve now, he needs more characters to interact with each other, simply to create more complex and surprising drama, from ‘Oh wow, so cool…’ to ‘Please don’t do that, you will get… oh no!’ That means a quick transition from open-source to paid, to the best actors and zesty writing, to rehearsals and emotional control, none of which comes from a cabin in the woods.

Maybe he is not that sort of person. Even so, he is determined to teach other people who will be able to combine traditional storytelling and performing with the open-source software’s buckets of magic. Who will enchant large audiences in conventional cinemas. Remember them?

Ian Hubert for the rest of us

He spoke to Art Cafe for a slightly less technical audience here, which also contains a list of resources.

Ian Hubert is an independent filmmaker known for his hilarious and highly entertaining educational Lazy Tutorials on YouTube.

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.