Availability update

As of June 2020 I am available for 3D generalist VFX remote working opportunities!

For the last couple of years I’ve been concentrating on Houdini related work, so if that’s what you’re after we’ll get along even better. I can work remotely on your machine, plus have local Houdini Indie and Redshift 3D licenses.

Prior to that I have an additional 13 years experience of other 3D software, including some Maya and a whole lot of Softimage – remember that?

Check out my CV and reel on this site, then get in touch via aj@ajcgi.co.uk! Or for a quick response, 07816 292534 is the number. If I don’t answer, please leave a voicemail. Don’t be shy.

Further Info About The Reel

Please note: I live a commutable distance to London, but due to current Covid 19 restrictions, I won’t be travelling into the city for quite some time.

2020 3D VFX REEL

PDF Shot Breakdown of 2020 3D VFX Reel

After a few more years of pootling about working in London and 2 years of Houdini work, it’s about time I updated my VFX reel! The previous one missed many projects out, so it’s fitting that this one is practically a 2019 one, especially considering the months spent during lockdown working on a personal project or two.

This particular reel contains some of the more effective and impactful shots I worked on for The Planets and the second series of Britannia, both at Lola Post Production in London’s West End. The Planets mainly involved decorative spheres in space, with a strong style that leans heavily on NASA’s archives with inky blacks and no stars. See my preview post from a while back for details!

Towards the end of The Planets I moved on to Britannia Season 2 as the CG shots were ramping up considerably. See my previous blog post for more details on that!

As an aside here, as someone who has switched 3D software to Houdini, if you’re considering learning Houdini, don’t be daunted! Start with the simpler stuff. At Lola, I was given a Houdini Core license which gets used in studios to do the day to day 3D tasks, working on shots, bringing in assets others have made, plus creating shaders, doing layout work etc. If you can handle that, the FX stuff becomes a lot easier to get your head around because you are already thinking Houdini. Looking back, especially now I have my own Houdini license at home, if I had dived into the FX end of things first it would have put me off the software. I can now easily work around problems with wrangles, writing my own nodes in VEX, I understand the logic with which the transforms are put together, the reason why global transforms are hardly ever differentiated from local and so on. If I had to learn that AND how to make a custom destruction sequence I’d be a full time bowl carver by now.

Enjoy the reel! And the drum and bass. Apologies, I needed something with pace and no lace. Feel free to use that last sentence in a conversation today.

Britannia Series 2 VFX

A breakdown of some of the VFX work by Lola Post

A while back, working at Lola Post, as things were winding down on BBC The Planets, I was handed a few things to work on for Sky/Amazon’s Britannia.

Initially this was a case of doing a spot of modelling. Barracks and cranes were needed to pad out the layout of an outdoor set. Aulus’ house had no roof in reality, then had my CG one, then a burnt version as some hooligans set fire to it using firebombs. Those also needed making as visual effects.

Two of the sets, one for the location known as Isca, and one for Oppida (an old name for settlement) were scanned using Lidar. Once that had been wrangled into something usable, it was handed over to us and used alongside many photo references taken on set to aid in all the modelling and set extension work that needed doing.

As there were many shots in both locations, there was a lot of tracking work to be done. I’m a firm believer in not over-engineering things. Whenever I could I pinned stills in to the plate using Nuke and then passed the whole lot onto compositors. However, being an atmospheric kinda show, this wasn’t always sufficient as said compositors usually had extra elements to add and a camera track was handy. Most of the shots tracked fine once we’d figured out lens info. Even when there’s loads of moving people in shot, there’s often enough to track between foreground and background for PFTrack to grab a hold of.

Isca had its own challenge. Being a hill fort inspired by some very old principles indeed, the actual set was tiny compared to the one that needed to be seen in wider shots. I was tasked with adding details in to aid its scale and believability. A quick fence creation setup in Houdini allowed me to draw in fences around the various huts dotted about. A series of particle distributions were used to scatter rocks, piles of logs and grasses around. Water troughs, buckets and other accoutrements were hand placed on to the set.

On the subject of technical work and Houdini, this was the second project where a large chunk of my work was done in Houdini, even layout and some of the modelling. This allowed me to continue learning an enigmatic software at a generalist level, only opening Houdini FX right at the end to set up a rigid body system. The project I’m on now (a story for another day) has seen me create particle systems, pyro smoke and even water, while all the time fitting that in within what many would consider the staple tasks of a 3d generalist, in one 3d package.

I even had an opportunity (much in the same way as my Latin homework at school was a ‘learning experience’ according to our teacher) to learn the basics of crowd setup in Houdini. When Aulus’ army arrive at Isca and indeed are en route, they didn’t have the decency to be real people. Luckily for me, much of the leg work of rigging soldiers and sourcing motion capture data had already been done, but setting up new shots based on others necessitated pulling things apart to understand how they worked, then making new setups from scratch. Much of VFX work is this and asking colleagues how to do things. Asking questions isn’t a weakness. Pretending to know everything is.

Preview – The Planets

On my longest stint working for one client, 14 months at Lola Post, I was lucky enough to be working on The Planets, first airing on BBC 2 on Tuesday May 28th, a decade after the previous BBC show of the same title aired.

A lot has happened in the last ten years – scientific advances and space exploration has led to us having unprecedented imagery and data from our solar system which has altered the theories as to how Earth and its sisters came into being, why we have life and other planets currently don’t, inspiring future voyages into the unknown. Down here on our little blue marble, technology has marched on apace, supporting space exploration and indeed driving it, but it has another positive outcome too – a huge improvement in visual effects.

This series has hundreds of VFX shots in it, many of them involving visualising locations we can’t possibly send a film crew to and times so far in the past it’s hard to imagine. With so many shots, and so many different terrains and planetary destinations to represent, I was brought in early to do look development and some research into how things may appear. Once the series was underway this was supported by the Open University who informed of correct details and current theories regarding how a landscape looks, the colour of the sky, the variety of tones on the ground and so on.

Helping all this was the fact that NASA and ESA put a lot of their data out in to the public domain, so written information, photographs, global textures and even elevation data, are available to you and I for free. There’s a lot to wade through but it was well worth the trouble.

Much of my terrain work and planetary imagery was pieced together in Terragen, though some of the wider planet shots including contemporary Earth, Jupiter and Neptune, are made in Houdini, that also being the 3D software of choice for laying out camera moves, adding asteroids, dust clouds and so on. The probes, asteroids, meteors and landers were mostly tackled by a team of talented artists and operators, some being hired for their lighting skills, modelling, others for more challenging Houdini simulation and destruction work.

Many were working for several months, a few of us well over a year, with production itself taking 2 years in total! That’s a lot of people putting in a lot of effort, and if my recent viewing of an episode is anything to go by, it’s all been worthwile!

For more info, check out the BBC Earth site at https://www.bbcearth.com/theplanets

The Alienist – Emmy Win

It’s not often I find the time to write something for my blogs these days. Even this news is 2 months old at time of writing. Back in September, the first episode of The Alienist, a show I spent many months doing modelling and texturing work on at Peerless, won the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role!

Needless to say it has gone on the CV. My colleague and good friend Rasik hopped over to LA (bravely I might add) and picked up this little lady for us. Here I am holding what has to be the most obvious hiding-in-plain-sight potential murder weapon I’ve ever held. Those lightning wings are spiky. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Anyway! Onwards and upwards!

Me with a shiny award. No I don't get to keep it. Stay outta my home! :P
Me with a shiny award. No I don’t get to keep it. Stay outta my home! 😛

The Alienist is now available on Netflix in the UK.

2017 Showreel

After many years of work I’ve finally built up enough new shots to replace much of my old reel. It served me well, bringing in many projects, and indeed some of the better shots still remain, but now with spangly new work alongside!

My contribution to each shot is shown briefly in the bottom left of the screen, with a much more detailed explanation written shot by shot in the PDF breakdown.

In the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some very interesting projects that have been subject to watertight NDAs. Now that they’ve been broadcast and the dust has settled, it’s a real bonus for me to finally be able to share some of these with you.

The MARS series and Teletubbies were two such projects. MARS was seven months of my time and if I recall correctly, Teletubbies was significantly longer. This left two large projects missing from my reel and consequently any updates to it felt kinda pointless as I’d only be adding one or two shots and labelling it a new reel. The thing with working in TV or film is not all shots that I work on are actually showreel-worthy. Many are similar to each other or shots I’ve made previously, or they may be created using other people’s systems, to the point that putting them in a reel of my own work feels disingenuous.

This reel has been a long time coming, so I hope you enjoy it!

P & O Commercial at Seed Animation

My last project before Christmas was at Seed Animation, somewhere I’d begun the year working on the surreal and hilarious Halwani Chicken commercial. This time around I was doing similar work on a P&O commercial, the style of which was to match a genuine stop-motion animation. As the client wished to see colour progressively spread through the world of our travelling couple, the choice to do this advert in 3d was made.

My input was as a layout guy and TD type. Layout is essentially placing things on screen in such a way that the eye feels comfortable when looking at the shots and is led to the correct area of interest. The TD (Technical Direction) input was mainly the unrolling paper effects seen throughout the animation.

Each strip of rolling paper was actually one long grid, flat by default, with a controller null at one end. A spiral curve was parented to that null and the grid deformed by that curve. As the null moved the spiral along the grid, an expression offset the position of the grid so it stayed put and the end unrolled. The grid was then extruded to give it thickness in its unrolled position, the new polygons kept in a separate cluster so they remained white, giving the impression of cut paper. As the operator stack remained live, the whole thing could be rolled back up, placed to suit the layout, then unrolled and deformed by a lattice to hug the surface it’s sat on. Having been animated, the whole thing was then converted to 2s so it mimicked the stop-motion 12fps standard.

Other inputs from me included the wobbly sellophane-like wake at the bottom of the ferry and the stones building up the castle in the background.
As with the Halwani commercial earlier in 2016, the whole project was rendered using Redshift 3D out of Softimage. Render times from Redshift still blow me away. It’s such a boon for small studios.

Mars VFX work for Nat Geo at Framestore

There’s a solid reason why I’ve not updated my blog lately! This is because I’ve been fortunate enough to be working continually since April at Framestore on Nat Geo’s new super series Mars! Woo!
I spent a fair amount of time as a Terragen guru. At least that’s what I was labelled when I joined. After a long stint of planetary artwork and huge cliff faces, both of which Terragen’s great for, I moved on to doing layout and lighting work in Maya. It was the first time I’d used a Linux install of Maya, let alone as part of a Shotgun pipeline so there were some wonderful learning curves at times, but it all paid off.
Framestore is the first of the large studios I’ve worked at and one that I used to dream about after seeing Walking With Dinosaurs all those years ago. It was a real privilege to work alongside amazingly talented people every day. Mars was a great project to work on and what I’ve seen of it so far is top notch. Catch it on Nat Geo or Sky Atlantic in the UK.
As the show is currently airing I am unable to show anything here… yet. Updates to come!

Swisscom Commercial

A while back I had my first stint of working at Glassworks London.

After assisting on a PS4 ad, tweaking a few shots to help another 3D guy with his workload, I moved onto this advert for Swisscom.
Layout is a stage that many of us do as part of shot creation. It’s similar to photographic composition in that elements in a scene must fit together on screen to draw the viewers’ attention to the right things, give scale to a shot, or perhaps a sense of drama or relaxation. In this case the skiier has to look fast so the piste has to be described on the mountainside in a way that suggests quick downhill progress in each shot.

We placed lots of fences in such a way that when someone else came along with a working system for simulating the wobble of said fences they were already there and the layout wouldn’t have to be worked on. This is almost always wrong as the layout tends to be adjusted according to client’s needs. For example if they feel the background isn’t working, perhaps the matte painting will need changing and the piste now runs into a mountainside. Looking at the final cut for the first time recently made me notice this had indeed happened and the fences had been adjusted accordingly.
All in all the piste appears consistent in width and our skiier makes it down to the finish line in double quick time!

To me this is quite a clever little advert, something that Glassworks seem to specialise in.

Halwani Chicken Commercial

Recently I was fortunate enough to work with the guys at Seed Animation in Soho, London. As soon as I sat with owner Neil Kidney and watched the initial storyboarded animatic for what was to be a minute long Egyptian commercial for fast food chicken giants Halwani, I knew it was going to be an interesting month or so. Every shot was packed with details, loads of characters, and environments that at first glance seemed to all be different. With the addition of an Arabic song and fast cuts of shots that seemed to include a concentration camp and a swimming pool of frying oil, this project became something I doubt I’ll forget in a hurry.

My involvement was as one of 2 TD and lighting types, picking up from where someone else had left off, a position that can be a little tricky. Everybody approaches technical setups differently, so some adjustments were necessary. Animators were brought in to animate chickens, and others were off site modelling and setting up the fluid simulation for the swimming pool of boiling oil.

As this was a Softimage project, much of the technical side of this animation was created using ICE. My first task to conquer was the external landscape setup and layout, while my partner in TD crime, Ogi (Ognjen Vukovic) was busying himself with initial lighting setups and a feather system based on ICE strands.

The landscape setup was similar for every external shot. There is a large grid from which another higher res mesh is generated. That mesh has weight maps on which drive the distributions of grasses, stones, paths, and rocks, all of which are instantiated using scatter tools in ICE. The trees are a simple underlying mesh with a pointcloud of instanced leaves at the top. Bizarrely enough I was initially using a feather system, FC Feathers, for the leaves as it gave me great control over the overall flow, but that was junked in favour of a random distribution, bar on one of the designs, the pine tree, where it still works well.

Once we’d blocked out all the initial layouts, we started to combine every shot into something that could be lit nicely and render quickly. Each animated chicken was cached out from an animation scene using the Alembic .abc format, then imported into Softimage using a Python script Ogi had written that applied the animation from the Alembic cache onto the feathered chicken.

With the feathers in place, the grass, rocks, trees, flowers, distant hills and the myriad of fences and buildings were beginning to add up, a challenge for rendering anywhere, let alone Seed, a small studio with only a few full time staff and a proportionally sized render farm. The solution to this challenge was the truly remarkable Redshift 3D Renderer. This uses GPU rendering with Nvidia CUDA compatible cards. It’s fast. No. It’s really fast. With all the aforementioned details in shot, render times ranged from about 6 to 10 minutes per frame for most shots, including the time taken to send the scene to Redshift. That’s with reasonable sample settings, sometimes volumetric lighting, and at Full HD. We had a handful of PCs, mostly with two 980GTX cards fitted, though others had Quadros inside. Consider that… the power of thousands of pounds worth of CPU rendering hardware in a pair of gaming cards!

The only limit we found with such complicated scenes was RAM. Redshift uses the graphics RAM for its rendering, not only your PC’s RAM which is a major limitation if you only have a 4GB card for example. With so many geometry instances, feathers and other models in our scenes, it was actually system RAM which was a limiting issue and thereby scene extraction time too as the PCs were paging to the hard drive. The solution to this was to cache out the animated characters from the assembly scenes to Redshift proxy caches, then read them back in to a new scene and render from there.

Technicalities aside, lighting and set dressing was wonderfully straight forward and a joyous thing indeed. I have actually used Redshift before at Glassworks, just around the corner from Seed, but this was the first time I was lighting such complicated scenes with it. I recently returned to a studio where they were rendering using VRay and my old buddy Mental Ray. The latter in particular felt archaic, much more so than it ever has. I guess I held on to that one so long because of its tight integration with Softimage.

We’re all very pleased with the results on this ad. It was a brilliant team of exceptional talent. The animation especially helps, adding to the madness of such a quirky piece! Altogether now! Bwaaa! Cluck! Cla cla cluck!
Apparently an English dub is in the works…

Freelance 3D Artist for TV and Film, based near Ashford International, commutable from London

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