It's Game On


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David Johnson made his mark on the multibillion-dollar video games industry. Now he’s taking his legendary career to Savannah and reinventing himself amid the famous Southern hospitality of the Hostess City.

The air in the Arizona desert was still as David Johnson eyed the explosives from what he hoped was a safe distance. Following the mechanical clamor of the backhoe as it carved a six-foot trench in the ground, and the hustle of teams as they filled that trench with military-grade pyrotechnics, the silence across the sands was deceptively calm. Johnson waited as everything was made ready, camera in hand.

And then, boom. 

“I felt it in my chest,” Johnson said of the percussive shock wave that ripped across the desert as a fireball engulfed the desert sky. With an explosion that size, most people would take cover. David Johnson was taking notes. 

For the next few months, footage from that explosion would run on a constant loop over his workstation at Activision, where he was tasked with recreating in inside the virtual battlegrounds of Call of Duty.

The New Blockbusters
While most people are vaguely aware that video games have matured as an artform somewhat since the days of Space Invaders and Pac-Man, it’s not commonly known just how big the industry has become. Just last year, according to the Entertainment Software Association, video games took in $36 billion. Compare that to the motion picture industry, which edged them out with $43 billion.

The games themselves have exploded in complexity, with huge tentpole games requiring $60 million budgets or more. Much like motion pictures, they require a small army of workers to get every detail right. And much like big blockbuster movies, they live and die by the quality of their effects.

In that regard, Johnson is one of the towering figures in his industry. Among the first to truly pursue the creation of realistic effects within video games, he has worked on legendary titles from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to Halo 3 and Shadowrun, ensuring that everything from fireballs to magic spells looked and felt real.

“The most typical stuff is weapons effects: muzzle flair, explosions, dirt going up when bullets hit… but even if it’s raining or it snows or a building’s on fire and the smoke is drifting off on the wind, all that stuff is done by effects team,” he said.

When Johnson started in the industry in 1998, the notion of an effects department in video games was a ways off, as the processing power available didn’t really allow for that kind of realism. Armed with a GED and a thirst for exploring new frontiers in computer graphics and animation that had taken him through a few city colleges around California, he got his first job in the industry. 

“I worked for this company called WildTangent for the first five years of my career. If you bought a Dell in the early 2000s, it came with games I worked on,” he said. His job at WildTangent involved creating three-dimensional models from props to characters. But soon his penchant for trying new things saw him emerging as an effects wizard. “WildTangent had this particle system editor and I started doing crazy things with it, plugging this reflection into this matte or whatever, and I started getting crazy results. It became a case where people in the company were saying, ‘If you need effects stuff, he’s your guy.’”

His career took off from there, with his reputation for creating mind-blowing effects growing with each game. You’ll find his fingerprints on some of the biggest titles of the last 20 years, as he pioneered an artform that has grown in recognition in part because of his efforts. When Johnson claimed his first Visual Effects Society Award during a lavish reception hosted by Patton Oswalt, James Cameron was in the front row. 

And when the time came to retire after his legendary career, Johnson and his wife Deanna had a decision to make: where to go next.

Baby Steps Out of California
David and Deanna are both seasoned travelers, as illustrated by the hundreds of pins littered across a world map that hangs in their home. Most are trips each took before they met, but a few are places that they have always enjoyed together: New Orleans, New York, Paris. This is a couple who has seen the world, and knows what they like. 

“We actually were close to moving to Vermont, but we realized we were visiting during a heat wave,” said Deanna. “It was not going to be like that at all during winter. We weren’t ready for that. I said, ‘Let’s take baby steps out of California.’”

 

That they now make their home in Savannah speaks volumes about the quality of life we might sometimes take for granted. From their gorgeous two-story Federal revival home in the historic district, the couple enjoys a prime location in the heart of Savannah.

“One fun thing when you move to a new place is, you create new little routines,” said David. “We’ve started bicycling to Forsyth on Saturdays and going to the farmer’s market… I find myself walking all the time. There’s a little walking park here in Dauphin.”

Along with their dogs Bijou, Charlie and Chiquita, David and Deanna arrived in Savannah and prepared for a well-deserved break from the rigorous deadlines and countless late nights of the video-game industry. Or at least that was the idea.

“The original plan was to take six months off and just kind of chill out and decompress, but I kept getting hit up by guys doing cool projects. The first was some ex-Bungie guys I worked with who were doing this Halo VR thing,” he said. An avid Halo fan, he had no intention of passing up a chance to work on the series again and before he knew it Johnson was back in the saddle. 

A few months ago, he made it official by hanging out his shingle as Undertone FX, a full-service effects studio. “Doing effects for games is a really niche position that’s hard to find talent for,” he said. “I kept getting contacted to do work, so I thought if I keep getting hit up for work, why not hire some guys?”

A Scrappy Startup
Johnson pulled in talent from SCAD, whose effects department had already been on his radar going back to his time on Call of Duty. Today, his three-man team works out of an office in his basement, designing effects for clients including Amazon Game Studios, MidWinter and SharkMob. And along the walls of his office, you’ll find souvenirs from his extensive career so far—two VES awards, signed copies of games, coffee-table books from various titles he’s worked on and his five-year award from Activision: an airsoft pistol with three bullets, each engraved with a title from the Call of Duty series. 

He was even able to find some talent close to home: Deanna, whose extensive corporate career with companies like Univision and Roll Global made her a perfect fit for COO. “I can handle all of the legal, corporate, not-fun stuff and he can handle everything else,” she said. 

“That’s pretty handy for a scrappy startup,” David added. Deanna’s talents don’t just extend to handling the business side of Undertone FX—the walls of the Johnson home are lined with her dazzling works of abstract art, mesmerizing swirls of color on canvas nearly everywhere you look. 

The couple have found a new, relaxed way of life in Savannah. And with the wealth of talent available at his fingertips through SCAD and plenty of places to recharge creative juices with a bike ride, a walk or a trip to the farmer’s market, David is beginning the next chapter in a historic career in the heart of the Hostess City.  

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South's Greatest Moms Contest 2018

We're looking for the greatest, most authentic and sincere, southern moms. Taking nominations November 1st!

South's Greatest Photographers 2018

We're looking for the greatest, most creative photographers. If that is you, or you know of any, don't hesitate to nominate!
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Events Calendar

  • Designer's Showcase: Dressed for the Season

    Nov 12, 2018
    11:00 AM - 3:00 PM @ Kaminski House Museum

    The Kaminski House Museum in historic Georgetown, South Carolina will be dressing the rooms of the Kaminski House Museum this holiday season with...

  • Tybee Marsh Treks

    Sep 01, 2018
    4:00 PM - 5:00 PM @ Tybee Island Marine Science Center

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  • Bonaventure Cemetery: After Hours Stories Eternal

    Nov 17, 2018
    5:00 PM - 8:00 PM @ Bonaventure Cemetery

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  • Lights of the South

    Nov 16, 2018
    5:30 PM - 10:00 PM

  • License to Chill Snow Island

    Nov 16, 2018
    All Day @ Margaritaville at Lanier Islands

    Margaritaville at Lanier Islands is preparing for a winter wonderland makeover that will surprise and delight local residents and travelers...

  • Toddler Touch Tanks

    Dec 06, 2018
    All Day @ UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium

    Explore the coast with your child in a unique setting perfect for inspiring wonder and curiosity! During select Thursdays in January and December,...

  • Skatefest

    Dec 07, 2018
    All Day @ Savannah Civic Center

  • Santa's Wonderland

    Nov 14, 2018
    All Day @ Bass Pro Shops

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  • 2018 National Gingerbread House Competition™ Display

    Nov 25, 2018
    All Day

    What started as a small group of gingerbread houses built by community members in 1992 has evolved into one of our most treasured traditions at The...

  • Girls' Night Out: "Meet Me in St. Louis"

    Dec 20, 2018
    7:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Tybee Post Theater

    Not many movies rate 100 % on the Rotten Tomatometer, but this 1944 classic MGM romantic musical comedy does. So that’s why we’re screening it...

  • Big Bon Pizza Pop Up

    Dec 21, 2018
    5:30 PM - 8:00 PM @ Henny Penny Cafe

    Join us as we host a Big Bon Pizza Pop Up. Grab a slice (or two, who's counting?!) and take a breather from all the holiday hustle bustle. Big...

  • Stardusted Circus Winter Solstice

    Dec 21, 2018
    7:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Tybee Post Theater

    An Evening of Light, Magic, and Wonders to Behold!As you walk up to the enchanting Tybee Post Theater you will be greeted by a Festival of...

  • "Green Book"

    Dec 22, 2018
    3:00 PM - 5:00 PM @ Tybee Post Theater

    There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around this new film about a working-class Italian-American bouncer, who becomes the driver of an African-American...

  • Holidays on the Big Screen

    Dec 22, 2018
    6:00 PM - 8:00 PM @ Ellis Square

    A family friendly event, bring everyone down along with chairs & blankets and watch a favorite holiday movie under the stars in Ellis Square. This...

  • Holidays on the Big Screen

    Dec 22, 2018
    6:00 PM - 8:00 PM @ Ellis Square at City Market

    Bring everyone to downtown Savannah along with chairs & blankets and watch a favorite holiday movie under the stars in Ellis Square. This is an...

  • Gregg Russell Christmas Concert

    Dec 23, 2018
    5:30 PM - 9:00 PM @ Harbour Town

    Relish the spirit of the holidays with an evening in Harbour Town. Listen as Gregg Russell plays his guitar and sings songs of the season for...

  • Christmas Eve Lunch Cruise

    Dec 24, 2018
    12:00 PM - 2:30 PM @ Savannah Riverboat Cruises

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  • Christmas Eve Dinner Cruise

    Dec 24, 2018
    3:00 PM - 6:00 PM @ Savannah Riverboat Cruises

    CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER ENTERTAINMENT CRUISE Join Savannah Riverboat Cruises this Christmas Eve, along with family and friends, for a...

  • Cocktail Classes in Cocktail Street Up

    Dec 24, 2018
    6:00 PM - 7:30 PM @ Congress Street Up

    Are you looking for something a little bit different, but still totally unique? Cocktail Classes in Congress Street Up are sure to wet your...

  • Islands Christian Church Christmas Eve Service

    Dec 24, 2018
    All Day @ Islands Christian Church

    Come join Islands Christian Church for a great Christmas Eve service!  Service times are 3, 4:30, and 6 P.M.


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Scenes of the South

Beaujolais Nouveau Day 2018

Savannah's 39 Rue De Jean celebrated Beaujolais Nouveau Day, the official end of this year’s growing season. Harvest is complete and vintners—especially in France—are ready to celebrate the completion of the harvest. Beaujolais Nouveau is a red wine that is annually released on the third Thursday in November. Nouveau wine undergoes a very short fermentation process, and yields an extremely fresh and fruity wine.

A Chefs Collaborative

This five course dinner held at Pacci Italian Kitchen and Bar allowed guests to taste exceptional flavors steeped in tradition. Included were the culinary skills of Chef Adam Barnett of The Katharine Brasserie & Bar, Winston-Salem, NC, Chef Robert Hoffman of Angeline’s Charlotte, NC, Chef Daniel Gorman of The Henley Nashville, TN, Chef Sebastien Rondier of Brabo, Alexandria, VA, and Chef Lauren Teague of PACCI Italian Kitchen + Bar.

East and West BBQ

A whole hog BBQ showcase, from two of the south’s most legendary Pitmasters, Pat Martin and Sam Jones. Hosted by Alida Hotel this event was a fabulous juxtaposition between Eastern North Carolina style BBQ and Western Tennessee style. Made possible by the Savannah Food and Wine Festival.

Savannah Food & Wine Fest

Hundreds came to experience Southern charm and hospitality, Savannah Style. The South's best culinary happenings - one exceptional week in Savannah. Iconic and historic coastal venues provided the perfect backdrop for gourmet and fun. South magazine captured the experience at the VIP tent.

Big Wig Boat Bash

Savannah's Riverboat, The Georgia Queen set sail to host the final fundraiser for the 2018 class of Big Wigs, together raising over $100,000 for the Susan G. Komen Coastal Georgia Foundation. This evening included heavy hors d’oeuvres, beverages, a silent auction, music and dancing and a contest to crown the Biggest BigWig! Contest categories included: The Biggest Wig, The Pink Ribbon Award and Best Pink Personality.

Boo Bash

This spooktacular evening included hors d’oeuvres, “spirits,” music and dancing, a Halloween costume contest with cash prizes, Halloween-themed entertainment, a 50/50 raffle, live auction and talent contest. Contest categories included: Dancing, Singing, Rapping, Stand-up Comedy and Lip Syncing.

Masquerade at the Mansion

Plenty of patrons donned masks and beads for an unforgettable Mardi Gras at the Mansion. There unique entertainment, food, and decor including magic fire, beignets, king cake and a photo booth, plus music and dancing, libations, late-night treats, and lots of surprises.

DineSouth After Party

This year's DineSouth ended in a blast. Dozens headed over to Barrellhouse, who hosted the after party. They enjoyed great drinks and live music by Individually Twisted.

DineSouth 2018

This year's DineSouth sponsored by Fulfillment.com was the greatest yet! South magazine has once again put on a night filled with fantastic food and entertainment. Guests enjoyed delicious food & drinks in the city while getting the opportunity to meet and mingle with the best chefs in the South. The entertainment was amazing with American Idol winner Candice Glover, unique band Velvet Caravan and the acoustic sounds of Annie Allman. The event supported the local Salvation Army.

Grand Opening of 201 Seafood

Mixing the traditional tastes of the south with the local flair of the city, 201 Seafood and Tapas Lounge showcases Savannah's culinary community and their grand opening now gives us full access to some of the best seafood in the Coastal Empire.