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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Events Calendar

  • Book Signing and Luncheon with Colleen Oakley

    Feb 19, 2020
    12:00 PM - 2:00 PM @ Chatham Club

      Join us for a luncheon with Colleen Oakley featuring her new book, You Were There Too. Tickets include lunch and a copy of Oakley's book. Two...

  • American Traditions Vocal Competition Quarter Finals II

    Feb 19, 2020
    4:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Skidaway Island United Methodist Church

    The second half of 28 quarterfinalists compete for a spot in the semifinals in the 2020 American Traditions Vocal Competition.  With an...

  • 2020 American Traditions Vocal Competition

    Feb 17, 2020
    4:30 PM - 9:30 AM @ Skidaway Island United Methodist Church

    The American Traditions Vocal Competition (ATC) returns for its highly anticipated 27th anniversary season Feb. 17-21, 2020. With an outstanding...

  • “Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao: Nationalism and Regionalism in Contemporary Spain”

    Feb 19, 2020
    7:00 PM - 8:00 PM @ Savannah Country Day School

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  • Savannah Pennysaver Job Fair

    Feb 20, 2020
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  • Confident Complexion – Love Your Skin at Bluemercury!

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  • American Traditions Vocal Competition Semi Finals

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    The 12 semifinalists compete for a spot in the finals as they sing their second program of American songs. The ATC requires singers to create...

  • Oglethorpe Mall Carnival

    Feb 20, 2020
    5:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Oglethorpe Mall

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  • Sips for Spouses

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  • "Little Women"

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    7:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Tybee Post Theater

    Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has crafted a “Little Women” that draws on both the classic...

  • Julilette Gordon Low Birthplace Groundbreaking

    Feb 21, 2020
    12:30 PM - 2:00 PM @ Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

    Girl Scouts of the USA is hosting an official groundbreaking ceremony to share information on current renovation work, future site highlights and...

  • American Traditions Vocal Competition Master Class

    Feb 21, 2020
    3:00 PM - 4:30 PM @ Savannah Cultural Arts Center: Ben Tucker Theatre

    Spend the afternoon with the judges as they work with contestants to perfect performances of select ATC songs. The ATC requires singers to create...

  • Magical Interventions feat. Ngil Mask, Fang People

    Feb 21, 2020
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    Everyone knows that magic is everywhere and everyone knows that you should only use magic if it helps yourself and others. What if someone has...

  • AURA Fest: Underground Weekend

    Feb 21, 2020
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  • Savannah Music Festival IPA Release featuring Roosevelt Collier & Jontavius Willis

    Feb 21, 2020
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  • American Traditions Vocal Competition Finals

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    8:00 PM - 10:00 PM @ Savannah Cultural Arts Center: Ben Tucker Theatre

    Join the gala evening as finalists content for top prizes and the all-important ATC Gold Medal. The ATC requires singers to create three rounds of...

  • Retro Run 5K Race

    Feb 22, 2020
    8:00 AM @ Red Gate Farms

    The Retro Run is Feb 22nd at Red Gate Farms: 8am Kids Mile, 8:30 5k/10k start. Bring out the coolest clothing, hair and bling for this race. Finish...

  • Forsyth Farmer's Market

    Jun 29, 2019
    9:00 AM - 1:00 PM @ South end of Forsyth Park

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  • 17th Annual Savannah International Food & Wine Festival

    Feb 22, 2020
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    Feb 23, 2020
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Scenes of the South

2020 Southern Coast Heart Ball

The American Heart Association held its annual Southern Coast Heart Ball on Saturday, February 8th at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa. Guests enjoyed a cocktail reception with a silent auction, dinner and program, and dancing to end the evening. All proceeds went to the Open Your Heart campaign.

4th Annual Hearts for Healing Gala

Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center held its Fourth Annual Hearts for Healing Gala on Friday, February 7th at the Tybee Island Wedding Chapel. Guests enjoyed gourmet dining, dancing, and a silent auction. All proceeds from the auction benefitted the Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center's program for individuals with disabilities.

IDC Benefits the 200 Club of the Coastal Empire

The LeClerc Family owners of IDC (International Diamond Center) in Savannah 349 Mall Blvd held a benefit to support the 200 Club of the Coastal Empire on Thursday, February 6th from 5:30pm to 8:00pm. Guests enjoyed light food and drinks, while bidding on several silent auction items, including autographed footballs and helmets donated by Anthony Lanier II.

Royce Learning Center Annual Low Country Boil & Oyster Roast

The Royce Learning Center held their annual low country boil and oyster roast on Saturday, February 1st. Guests enjoyed mingling over the seafood selection. Royce Learning Center meets the needs of children and adults with learning differences and literacy needs through its unique programs.

Dining in the Dark 2020

The Savannah Center for Blind and Low Vision held its annual Dining in the Dark event on Saturday, January 18th at the Embassy Suites Downtown Savannah. Guests were served a four-course meal in complete darkness by the Savannah Metro's SWAT team. Dining in the Dark serves to raise awareness about vision loss.

January Brews for a Cause

South magazine in collaboration with Southern Eagle Distributing hosted their monthly Brews for a Cause on Thursday, January 16th at the Savannah Taphouse in a successful effort to raise money and awareness for the Savannah Center for Blind and Low Vision. The night featured delicious appetizers by Savannah Taphouse and a range of flavored Bud Light Seltzers provided by Southern Eagle. These events provide good food, fun entertainment, refreshing drinks and most importantly – raise money for a great cause! Be sure to be on the lookout for our next Brews in February!

Ford Plantation's Grand Opening & Ribbon Cutting for Silk Hope

The Ford Plantation celebrated the completion of its two new Silk Hope model homes on January 10, 2020. The Silk Hope project is limited to 53 homes, on beautiful lots of buyers’ choosing amongst old oaks and a Lowcountry marsh setting. This member-backed project is the first new for sale residential development at The Ford Plantation in more than fifteen years and represents the final phase of home development to be offered. The Silk Hope community is the product of a collaboration of some of the world’s top residential architects and landscape designers and has been modeled to capture tranquil European village and Lowcountry architecture.

Mat Best Signs his New Best-seller at Nine Line

Veteran, entrepreneur and author Mat Best met fans and signed copies of his new book “Thank you for my Service” Thursday Dec. 12 at Nine Line Apparel. Best’s best-selling authorial debut chronicles his service as a U.S. Army Ranger. Best's Black Rifle Coffee co., partnered with Nine Line Apparel, has shops on River st. and off route 95 on Ft. Argyle rd.

Victory Antiques and Engel & Völkers' Holiday Party

Dickey Mopper and his team at Engel and Völkers celebrated the season at their annual holiday party on Wednesday Dec. 11, with a special appearance from the jolly fellow himself, Santa Claus. Mopper and company, celebrating alongside the crew of Victory Antiques, showed off the newest Engel and Völkers office at 1650 East Victory Dr. in Savannah.

Good Times Jazz Bar & Restaurant's 2nd Anniversary Celebration feat. Lady Leah

Jazz lovers celebrated Good Times Jazz bar's second anniversary on Nov. 8 and 9 featuring jazz vocalist Lady Leah and the culinary stylings of Good Times' chef Joe Randall, the dean of southern cuisine. In 2017 Randall teamed with Danielle and Stephen T. Moore to create one of the city's smoothest spots, a confluence of culture and taste fit for the soul of Savannah.