Get to know… Magnetic Dreams

May 14, 2014



In the spirit of connectedness and collaboration, we’ve been chatting with Shotgun clients all over the globe gathering stories, passions and advice to share with our community. Nashville native and Magnetic Dreams Partner Don Culwell knows a thing or two about dedication and perseverance. Whether his day is spent animating Elmo, creating superhero VFX or knocking down actual walls, he tackles each job with intensity and enthusiasm.

Tell us about Magnetic Dreams.  

Magnetic Dreams is a Nashville-based animation and VFX studio that handles projects running the gamut from Sesame Street to Marvel to local car dealership advertising. With 30 artists on average, we’re on the small side but we execute a lot of the same kinds of work as studios in more traditional entertainment hubs like Hollywood or New York. We were founded in 1989 and have long history in the community. Most recently we just finished an indie, faith-based film called ‘Yellow Day.’ We did about 150 full CG shots including character animation and VFX.

Why has Magnetic Dreams been so successful?

Our heart and our people. We’re flexible, persistent and accommodating to our clients with a love for creating and serving. When we set up shop in Nashville 20 years ago, we had an uphill battle. Establishing operations was very expensive and we had no funding. The internet only existed in the form of bulletin boards and learning was limited to trial by fire. Machines were slow with endless limitations. We were an underdog, bootstrapping every step of the way; surviving by war of attrition. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on equipment and software but NewTek helped change the game by offering LightWave for $3,000, which we used for ten years. When we started out, we would work on average 150 hours a week. Every project brought with it a new challenge and we even doubted our ability to deliver. It was like that over and over again but we never gave up trying and always managed to finish. It was crazy, and sometimes still is. We’ve worked really hard for our success, and our hours have become relatively more sane since those early days. I think Magnetic’s success is also the result of being refined in the fire. Those early jobs led to more and bigger work, and now we work with the likes of Marvel, Dreamworks and Sesame Street; the lion’s share of Sesame Street’s new digital content comes through Magnetic Dreams at some point.

What’s a day in the life of Don like?

My day really depends on the project but email generally takes up a big chunk of time. First and foremost, I’m an artist. I’ve worked in every part of the company and learned each step of the pipeline. Now, I mostly focus on building relationships, charting new ground, producing projects and solving problems; I identify bottlenecks and find solutions for those issues. Some would say that I inadvertently create issues. Guess sometimes that’s true too. With great responsibility comes great accountability. Outside of work, I spend time with my teenage son and wife.

What are the three most important things in your office?

I have a gigantic movie poster of the first film we worked on; the compensation was mostly in points but the film didn’t make anything, so it turned out to be worth around 150K. It’s for sale. I’ll go as low as 50K! I also have a piece of artwork purchased from a friend of mine. His son was involved in a tragic accident so he created a series of paintings as a tribute. The one I have shows him as a little boy flying through the air with an electric guitar; it’s very special to me. The third thing would be my GAF Super 8mm camera belonged to my father. He wasn’t a filmmaker but loved technology, media and entertainment. He was an engineer and entrepreneur that always had the latest gadgets. I found this camera when I was 13, ordered film for it and starting making stop motion movies with homemade models of the Millennium Falcon and Snowspeeder when I was a kid. I still keep the camera on my shelf.

What tools do you use in-house at Magnetic Dreams?

We started on LightWave but moved to Softimage in 2003. Now we mostly use Softimage, Maya and 3ds Max along with Fume and a lot of plug-ins. We also use Mari, Topogun, Mocha, Syntheyes, ChronoSculpt, Mudbox and Zbrush. For compositing, we use After Effects and Eyeon Fusion for node-based work. We render with Redshift and recently rebuilt our entire render pipeline around it. Royal Render is our render management system and we’re excited to see that the developer is working to add Shotgun support.

And then of course there’s Shotgun. Shotgun has rapidly become one of the most important tools we use. It’s simple yet powerful, scalable and flexible. It works great for our Producers and Artists alike and makes us look really good to our clients. The progress of a project is laid out in an organized way so our clients always have confidence that everything is on track. CS Lewis said, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” Shotgun provides that straight line for our productions!

What tools have you developed in-house at Magnetic Dreams?

Beso was our predecessor to Shotgun; if Shotgun hadn’t turned out to be so awesome, we’d still be trying to fill that game on our own. Instead, we are now focused on connecting Shotgun with our 3D applications via custom tools. Tim Crowson, Magnetic’s Asset and Assembly Supervisor, has helped us streamline common tasks by writing tools which publish assets to Shotgun for version tracking and pull data from Shotgun to help artists create shot layouts quickly. We’re currently exploring ways we can utilize Shotgun’s asset management system.

How much effort do you focus on building out the pipeline?

Pipeline is a 24/7 undertaking; we are always thinking about it and it’s very important. We’ve had people from ILM, Dreamworks and Pixar come work at our studio, and we learn from them. As disorganized as we feel sometimes, it’s encouraging to hear how together we actually are from these people, especially because a lot of the individuals are freelancers who work at 30 or 40 places a year. I heard this great saying from a producer friend: “Nine women can’t make a baby in a month,” which is so true; throwing more people and stacking resources isn’t necessarily going to get the job done faster. A well-run pipeline is a tremendous asset though.

How do you stay connected to the artist community?

Honestly we should be doing more but our resources are simply spread too thin. We stay pretty slammed and many artists come to us so we aren’t reaching out to the community as much as we should. We do provide support for other creative businesses in Nashville. Since we’ve been here for so long, people call us up for advice and we’re happy to help walk them through things. About seven years ago, we started an internship program and it’s done really well. We’ve had the great pleasure to work with artists from schools across the US like SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), Full Sail and others but also artists abroad.

What’s your favorite thing about working in Nashville?

When I was 16, I was going to move to Los Angeles but I ended up meeting my business partner and I’m so glad I stayed. 20 years later I find that California has come to me and brought my wife (and best friend) with it. Nashville is a wonderful place; priorities here are what I believe they should be – family and faith. You don’t find many people stressing about things that are truly meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Our office is in a small neighborhood called Donelson near downtown; it’s a great little community.

When you aren’t working, what’s an ideal way to spend the day?

I enjoy fixing up my home with my wife and son. We’ve torn our house apart and are putting it back together… on Don time. Don time is a vortex in which a day is equal to a year, a minute equals an hour and so on. My wife loves Don time. I also have a thing called a long cut in which I take the absolute longest route from point A to point B in an effort to save drive time. After so many hours working on digital stuff which doesn’t really exist, I find it rewarding doing tactile things with my hands to improve the house.

What led you to visual effects?

I’ve always been interested in 3D animation and VFX. I started experimenting with computers at an early age and was pretty well versed in the various programs available to me by 16. I founded a broadcast art and animation company in 1993 before merging with my business partner and Magnetic Dreams founder, Mike Halsey, the following year. In those days, we were using LightWave on Commodore Amiga computers with 8MB of total RAM. We had a hard drive that would hold as many as 40 floppies!

What is the biggest challenge in running a studio?

I would say balancing workload is probably the trickiest part. You have to spread things out so you don’t have pockets where there’s no work or too much work. Managing artists takes a lot of experience and you have to walk a fine line between stewardship and submission. It’s an ongoing learning process.

Magnetic Dreams 2012 Demo Reel from Magnetic Dreams on Vimeo.