It's Game On
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.