We had the good fortune of connecting with David Luong and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi David, how did you come up with the idea for your business?
Photonic Playground Art Gallery was conceived by myself and my husband, Steven Dowling Jr. Harking back to 2014, we had just moved out of a sterile and conservative part of Orange County where it was perhaps great for families, but not very exciting or having much culture at all in regards to the arts. And so we sought out a new place to live where we can immerse ourselves in the art scene while also being in the thick of activity and events. That place was downtown Santa Ana and to hone in further on that, we specifically were looking for a modern and art centric place to live called The Artists’ Lofts. The front door is literally downtown right when you step outside. These lofts were live/work lofts, and zoned commercial and residential. This enabled us to have a business on the first floor, and live on the top. It had a huge metal staircase leading up to our living room and and wonderful light with high vaulted ceilings in an industrial open style. Downtown Santa Ana also featured a monthly Art Walk program where other people with galleries (residential and fully encompassing galleries) would open up their doors to welcome the public for showing off and selling art. We thought to ourselves, this is a great opportunity for us to try our hand at opening our own gallery. We both worked in the games industry, and I had a great network of film/tv visual effects artist friends who I might think would love to be a part of this. It would a gallery for digital and entertainment artists, something that is lacking in the gallery scene where it’s mostly fine or contemporary art. In fact, we would be the only gallery of it’s kind really in Orange County. The idea for the gallery name came from Steven, who is a huge Star Trek nerd. The holodecks were “photonic playgrounds” and I thought that matched perfectly what we were going for in the art gallery. Everything you see reflected back are just photons of light, and it is that bending and manipulation of the colors and intensities that becomes the playground. Thus, Photonic Playground was born in 2014. I would use my own personal art for the grand opening in August, and then would feature new artists and themed art 2-3 months apart.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I focus primarily on visual, detailed, and realistic images through lighting, color, compositing, and digital matte painted environments. At work, I jump between being a lighter/compositor for the cinematics at Blizzard Entertainment video games and also doing environment work for the characters through skies and matte painting work. Personally, I do work that usually involves my family, husband, or dog, and incorporate them with a story in a digitally enhanced environment shot. Everywhere I travel, I’m always taking photos, and will use those photos one way or another to add some depth and detail to upcoming projects. Lately, I’m also getting more into the audio arts, learning about fidelity and quality of audio spaces be it stereo, binaural, ambisonics as well as dealing with clarity, noise, and bit samples. I’ve been working for years on just the visual sides of cinematics, but it’s been a joy diving into the audio side of it too, which I feel can be an invisible or unsung hero of cinema. Getting to where I am today, was through patience, perseverance & passion. The video games and movies I grew up with lead me to go to art school in the early 2000’s. I went to Academy of Art University, San Francisco, for 4 years. A wonderful city with some lovely teachers. The cost of going there though, was quite hefty, as I’m still paying for the school loans almost 20 years later! But I felt my time there was worth it, and after graduating, that lead me to work at Luma Pictures after 4-6 months of searching in the summer of 2005. After getting the interview in their Santa Monica office, I was so energized and excited, telling my family I got the job for sure! I may have just tricked myself into thinking that, or perhaps my passion overtook me, but I appeared the next Monday thinking I actually got the job (which I didn’t yet). They just told me they liked my reel and that I might be a good fit in the coming weeks for a new movie they’re working on. But I took that as a sure fire deal. The morning I arrived, the VFX Supervisor there was bewildered not knowing of any new hires yet. He told me to hang around the area until he got hold of the producer there to figure things out. I was still so excited being my first movie job so I just thought they may have mistaken something even though I’m here, ready and eager to work. After I got breakfast, I got the call saying I can come back and talk some things over with the Producer. When I got there, he took me outside, and said “I’m happy to see you here, but we didn’t officially hire you yet, and we didn’t even talk about pay.” In my mind, I didn’t mind, and pay was low on my list, just getting my first working title credit would be great. He threw out a number and it seemed low, but I didn’t mind it. We agreed, signed a contract, and the I.T. there started setting up my workstation. So this was my story of where I “hired myself” in a strange turn of events through sheer passion and the generosity of the people Luma Pictures. When you are young and naive, these are the things that might happen. You get so passionate about something, you’d do crazy things like this to get hired. Luckily I did, but I don’t recommend doing this for the up and coming artists. After about 6 months there working as a digital paint and rotoscope artist on the movie Underworld Evolution, I found another opportunity nearby at an Oscar winning studio named Rhythm & Hues. A few of my other coworkers went to work there and told me about a paid 1 month apprenticeship program to get even more experience with about 1/3 chosen after to stay on as full time. It was a huge step in my career, as it paid even more than my time at Luma Pictures, while also going to a much bigger studio. Luma had 50 people, Rhythm & Hues had over 800 world wide, with about 400 at the LA office. More excitement and passion! I did my best during the apprenticeship, working hard and getting the hang of their proprietary software, and made it to the final 1/3. That lead me to work on a few more movies, named Garfield 2, Superman Returns, and Night at the Museum. Fond memories working in the dark “stage” area with other coworkers in close proximity and I met amazing life time friends there. Many who would go on and do great things at other studios around the world. Sadly after 10 months there, the work dried up, and they were letting a lot of us go. So off to finding a new place, but this time, my sights were on one of my dream job studios. It was either Weta Digital in New Zealand, who famously worked on Lord of the Rings, or to Blizzard Entertainment, where I grew up playing all of their games which lead me to watch all of their cinematics supporting the games. Through a few contacts inside Blizzard, they pushed to get me an interview, for which I am forever grateful to them. It was a 3 hour interview with the directors, producers and leads of the cinematics team. Many were co-founders of the original team. It was awe inspiring talking to them, and getting a little tour of the old headquarters on 131 Theory in Irvine, California. They kept reiterating that they don’t want to hire people who would just use this as a stepping stone to go elsewhere, but to stay here long term. I kept telling them back that I would never want to leave, as this was one of my dream jobs to work at. I guess things clicked between us and I got hired to work there full time on November 2006. I’ve been there ever since, and will be hitting my 15 year anniversary this year…time flies! Personally, I’ve grown much since then, having figured out work/life balance, and not working crazy hours of overtime anymore during my time at Blizzard (in which the company has also grown and changed, not wanting or allowing people to work so much more). I think as a young artist, you’d want to do anything to get that experience, title or credit so that would enable you to work on more exciting titles. Working crazy over time and not caring so much about yourself or your personal life might be fine when you are younger and priorities aren’t to anyone else. But as time goes on, I’ve learned to give that balance back to my life and leave work at work while also doing more things on my own time that bring me joy just for my own sake. Priorities shift, hobbies and passions change, and that was why I created the art gallery and getting more into some audio arts. Because it’s what makes me happy and lets me expand myself, while also seeing more of the culture and community through the gallery. These things also have allowed me to avoid burnout and channel my energy into something different. I believe this also allowed me to stay at one studio for so long, and the cinematics being produced at Blizzard is still some of the best in the world.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
After living at the Artists Lofts for 4 years, we wanted some place more quiet, and so we moved to the 1950’s created suburbs of Park Santiago, Santa Ana. Even after though, I’m still a part of the art gallery scene as I’ve been asked to be the curator for The LGBTQ Center Orange County’s gallery, also located in downtown Santa Ana. So that would be one of the places I’d show them if I were in town. That, and a whole lot of eating/drinking downtown for sure 😛 Places like 4th St. Market, The McFadden Market with a beer cade and food court. We would check out the local beaches, 20-30 minutes away such as Laguna Beach (which also has a cool art gallery scene), Newport Beach, Huntington Beach. Of course see Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farm, or Magic Mountain (for those theme park inclined.) Also to the quieter mountainside and forest of Big Bear with so many nature trails, hiking and more. For those more into the seafaring side, go to Catalina Island for the day (a hidden gem that is a part of Los Angeles) and spend the day walking around there and experiencing the island. Due to Covid19 restrictions, all of these are subject to change and being open of course. This pandemic has definitely taken a toll on going out and eating/drinking for sure!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d love to give a shout out to 1) a wonderful movie released in 1984 called The NeverEnding Story, and also 2) The book of the same name it was based upon. The treasure trove of visuals, music, adventures, and heartfelt tales in the movie inspired me to do so much in life as an artist. It also got me to read the book, which expands upon the world through my imagination to even greater depth that the movie never got to touch upon. The second movie though, wasn’t as impactful, and the third one….well I never even saw it because I didn’t want it to taint my love for the original movie (the trailer didn’t look anywhere close to inspiring as the first movie). Give the book and the first movie a go for sure!
Blizzard Entertainment, Overwatch 2
Blizzard Entertainment, Diablo 4
Blizzard Entertainment, Hearthstone
Blizzard Entertainment, Heroes of the Storm
Blizzard Entertainment, Diablo 3
Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft
Blizzard Entertainment, StarCraft 2