Tag Archives: artist

My oh my… I’ve done 10 years of VFX work.

It’s now a decade since I first cut my teeth doing VFX on music videos. Lots has changed, technology has marched on at a huge pace, and yet the fundamental way of approaching a shot is almost the same.

Simple solutions are often the most effective ones and in particular those you know and can trust. For me this has meant finding appropriate methods for a particular time & situation and sticking with them for similar projects in the future. Consequently alongside my extensive Softimage, Terragen and PFTrack experience, my VFX fingers have touched Adobe products, GIMP, Deep Exploration, SpeedTree, Global Mapper, Inkscape, Combustion, Nuke, Maya, Max, and Cinema 4D.

As a generalist with such a broad background skillset, I found myself recently in an unusual position; that of a 3D lead artist on a 60 episode long TV series. All in all I spent a year working alongside a team of staff from both the production and post production side of things. I was even on set for a stint, something I hadn’t done for many years. Rather irritatingly, the whole thing is under wraps so I can’t say a word about that directly until it’s broadcast.

In the past 10 years I’ve learnt more than I could possibly have imagined when I left college. Here’s a few things I’d like to pass on to those entering the brave new (actually quite old) world of VFX. They’re based on my experience, so might not match the opinion of others.

Firstly and most importantly, listen to those telling you not to be sedentary. Stand up often and walk around. Consider a standing desk. Exercise regularly. You need it. Yes you do. Fresh air too, and daylight. By daylight I mean directly from the Sun, not a simulation bulb. Plus if you work from home, which you may well do at some point, human contact is essential. You need those breaks from the screen to be a human being rather than a ‘zombie’ as I’ve heard execs refer to VFX guys as.

On a similar note, burning the candle at both ends does nobody any good. Try to avoid long hours, even if you are enjoying a project. Past a certain point in the day, I find the work I am doing is deteriorating in quality and my brain is no longer functioning at its best. On that note, drink plenty of water. Lots of offices are air-conditioned and will dry you out very fast. If you must work extra time, try to wangle a weekend, especially if you’re a freelancer. You’ll get paid an extra day and will have the benefit of further sleep. Some of my best work has been done on a Saturday.

Don’t be ashamed to take shortcuts or cheat. The whole of VFX is a cheat, a lie. It’s OK to use stock libraries for footage, elements, sound, textures and even models. Quality varies so do your research, but the time you could save will actually save money in the end too. For an HD project, consider rendering out elements at 720p, then upscaling in the comp. 720p has less than a million pixels in it. 1080p has over 2 million. Render times are much lower and many cannot tell the difference in image quality. There are rare exceptions to this, but I’ve even passed SD anamorphic widescreen renders of skies and the like to be composited before now and nobody’s noticed or cared. If it is matching something soft in the background footage or is out of focus anyway, it just doesn’t matter.

Keep curious. Ask questions of those around you, whether they’re older or younger, wiser or greener. Everybody knows something the person next to them doesn’t and in this profession, that’s especially true. Whether you are self-taught or degree educated, you cannot possibly know all there is to know about the huge amount of software and associated techniques. Remember what I wrote earlier about simple solutions? The more experienced near you will possibly know them, so just ask. Don’t waste four hours struggling to do something that could be done in one hour using a technique they know.

VFX isn’t all about big budget movies and long form TV shows. Consider using your skills elsewhere. There’s a huge amount of corporate and educational work out there. I did quite a long stint of work on illustrative animations for educational websites and kids TV. As another example, did you know there’s 3D warehouse simulation software, requiring many real-time 3D models? Now you do.

Finally, if you’re a freelancer, get used to this question: “So what are you working on at the moment?”
My answer is currently, “Nothing,” so feel free to get in touch!
If you have no money, don’t, but do read this: http://www.ajcgi.co.uk/blog/?p=855

London 3D VFX Freelance – Update on my Availability

For those pondering if I’m available to work, here’s a quick update. I am currently fully booked until August in a lead role.
I’ve been working on the same project all the way from last summer until the one that’s coming, setting up systems, dealing with clients a lot closer than before. I even had a period of working on set daily which is previously only something I’d done on sporadic days, several years ago!
The project is strictly under wraps so I can’t reveal what it is, but it’s very exciting and I’ve certainly been learning a lot on the job.
After completion, there’s a strong chance I won’t want to jump straight into something else. If you want to book me in for September onwards, that’s a safer bet than August for sure.

The Bible Series – VFX

Recently in America, The History Channel broadcast The Bible Series, knocking American Idol into the weeds for ratings. The real reason of course to celebrate this fact is that I worked on VFX for this, along with many others hired by / working at Lola Post, London.

There were hundreds of shots. As the series covers many well-known events that are either epic in scale or miraculous in nature, it’s hard to cut corners with this kind of content.

One of the advantages of VFX is the ability to extend sets or create new ones. The most used model shared amongst the 3d crew was that of Jerusalem. It was originally an off-the-shelf-model of a real scale model, intended to be seen from a distance, so it needed to be tweaked and improved upon where appropriate on a shot by shot basis. With so many artists having touched the model at one point or other, the lighting setup, materials and textures got improved to the extent that once composited, the shots really shone out. Many of the shots I did for The Bible featured Jerusalem, either as an entirely CG set or an extension tracked into existing footage.

One story that is covered in the show is that of Moses parting The Red Sea, with the Israelites being chased by Egyptians through the parted waves. The shot I did for this sequence is a slightly top down shot, following the fleeing crowds through the freshly created gap in the ocean. To achieve this, I effectively split the 3d ocean into horizontal grids and vertical grids. The horizontal grids were simulated with aaOcean in Softimage. The vertical ones were distorted to represent the sea walls, textured with composited footage of waterfalls running upwards. The join where the two sets of grids met was blended using a matte and Nuke’s iDistort node. Softimage’s CrowdFX was used for the fleeing crowd. Twirling smoke elements were added once passed to the comp.

An advantage of Softimage’s ICE simulation system is that making a convincing cloud or mist is a fairly straight forward procedure. I was tasked with creating a storm over Jericho, a swirling mass of cloud and debris that had to look huge and imposing whilst looking down through the eye of the storm.
With clouds, water, and many other fluids, scale can be half the battle. A large wave only looks large if surrounded by smaller ones, a cloud only looks like a huge ominous mass if seen as a collection of smaller masses, but go too small and the effect is lost entirely. In the case of the cloud, if too many small details were apparent it very quickly seemed fluffy. Cute a storm is not. Once the cloud’s scale was correct, there was the issue of it having to spin, distort and generally seem organic. Handily ICE has a node for rotating clouds around points in space so that solved that one. The distortion was shape animation applied to a lattice attached to the cloud.

The rest of my involvement on The Bible was tracking shots in PFTrack and adding in set extensions.
Most of the 3d content was rendered using Solid Angle’s Arnold Renderer.

The shots I mention above, along with a few others, are now online in my updated 2013 reel.
For further details on VFX in The Bible, check out FXGuide’s feature on Lola’s work.

Brand New Showreel!

The work in the following reel is created using Softimage, Terragen, Nuke and PFTrack.
Text in the bottom right shows what I created for each shot.
See PDF for further details.
Download PDF shot breakdown

Edited on 15th Oct – Now updated with work from The Bible Series and How To Build a Planet

Stick vs Carrot – Why I don’t work for free

This is aimed not at vfx companies, but at individuals who need help on short films, student projects, promo work on their first independent music video and so on.

Ever since I began in this freelance career of mine I’ve been asked to work on many projects of a low budget nature, and even more of a no budget nature. My stock answer to emails asking if I wish to work on a low or no budget project is no. Here’s why.

The most common phrase used to entice me in these situations is, “We have little budget now, but it could lead to more work in the future.” This works 2 ways. More work in the future shows that you believe in this project. Or does it? The future work is the carrot, the current low budget is the stick. In business that stick is a problem.

If you have your kitchen replaced it would be fair to say that even on a shoe string budget you would find sufficient coin to pay for a plumber and a gas man. Why? Because done badly, the plumbing could flood your house causing expensive water damage and worse, a dodgy gas fitting can blow a house sky high. You are effectively investing in your future. If those tradesmen have done their job correctly first time around you should never need to call on them again. They are skilled in their craft and charge accordingly.

When I finish a job, the intellectual property rights including copyright, must be handed over to the client. Past that they can do what they like with it. Every shot I have ever done to be shown on the BBC for example is legally allowed to be placed into any show of their choosing whenever they like and they don’t have to tell me or pay for it again. In that respect, production companies get astounding value for money out of vfx companies and thence freelancers like myself. In the same way as a plumber has years of practical on-the-job training and experience, so do I.

If I have a kitchen that needs plumbing I will pay someone that knows what they are doing. If they underquote, they are underselling, possibly inexperienced or trading illegally, all of which are bad. In that situation I would call someone else.

If you contact me for a quote on a small project, find it larger than you expected and go elsewhere, don’t be shocked if that elsewhere isn’t much cop or turns out to be just as expensive thanks to needing to hire someone else to sort out mistakes.

In short, you get what you pay for.

Quality, Speed, Affordability. Pick 2, the other one will suffer.

Do We Really Need The Moon?

If like me you did A Level physics, you’ll know the answer to this, but this documentary is worth watching.

For a good few months now I’ve been freelancing for Lola, working on a few things. Although broadcast first, this is the second show I’ve worked on there, with a few underwater shots like this pictured, a fly through the solar system to Jupiter, and a sweep across Saturn.

The water shots are mostly a 2d job run by a Nuke compositer, but in order to create a decent depth to things I tracked each shot, placing 3d geometry into a Softimage scene, then outputting depth passes. Fast Volume Effects output shader was used for the rays of light cast through the surface.

The solar system was a fairly easy task. There’s plenty of data freely accessible from NASA regarding where each planet is in relation to the others, their relative sizes and suchlike, but Jupiter was still cheated nearer for timing purposes. It’s also a little larger than reality for similar effect.

For a few more days, it will be up on iPlayer.

BBC iPlayer – Do We Really Need The Moon?

Animation for Oasis

Oasis Denim Animation

That’s the shop, not the band, pop-pickers.
Recently I was called upon by Pretzel Films to aid them in the creation of an animation for the ladies clothing shop Oasis. We see a girl walking along changing clothes to suit her environment, the time of day and such, focussed on the idea that there is a pair of jeans for every occasion.

My input was the background images, drawn mostly by hand, then animated into the background based on a rough edit provided for me. The girl was not filmed against a green or blue screen, allowing the director, Jake Dypka a greater freedom when it came to lighting, however this did mean Jake ended up doing a lot of rotoscoping. Fortunately he was using the new rapid rotoscoping tools in After Effects CS5, which I’ve yet to look into. It was an enjoyable piece to work on, being something that provided enough creative leeway to not be restrictive.

Update: The film was viewable on Oasis-stores.com but is no longer part of their marketing. However, it is currently sitting on youtube apparently. http://bit.ly/a2ID0h

Waking The Dead begins…

flies

Series 8 of Waking The Dead started last night on BBC 1, here in the UK.

Around the 17 minute mark, 2 people go inside a building and get many cg flies thrown in their direction, created by my fair hand, animated one at a time in XSI, composited in After Effects by Sascha Fromeyer of The Green Apple variety.

More to come on this show… Hopefully show reel rights, who knows?

Kenneth Branagh picks up Television BAFTA for Wallander

Last night was the Television BAFTAs, this being the time of year when shares in sequins go through the roof. The Best Drama Series Award went to Wallander, produced by and starring Kenneth Branagh.

So how does this relate to me in the slightest? I did a couple of VFX sequences in that I’ll have you know! All being well, one of them will be in the show reel I am currently piecing together. There was a lot of fog at one point, some of which is 3D fog created in XSI’s ICE engine then composited in After Effects, the aim being to cover up gaps in the smoke machine’s efforts.

Check out the rest of last night’s winners and losers at http://www.bafta.org/awards/television/tv-noms-2009,709,BA.html