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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
From the summer of 2014 through till the summer of 2015 I was involved in a project the scale of which I’d not played a part in before. A new series of Teletubbies was announced as being in the works, and Lola Post, where I was freelancing as a 3D type, had won the contract for all the VFX. All 60 episodes of it.
This amounted to hundreds of shots, a volume which is ordinarily associated with film projects. Initially I was involved in the pre-production, working alongside Pinewood-based prop-makers Propshop and the production company, Darrall MacQueen, in laying out designs for the set and other VFX assets. The actors were to be shot on a blue screen with the set being a 1:20 scale. It was our digital set layout which was 3D printed and then dressed by the prop shop staff. This allowed us to use the same 3D data when lining shots up in postproduction.
During the shoot I was working out of a hair and make-up room next to stage three at Twickenham Studios, alongside the DIT. This allowed me to continue developing assets for the 3D team back in London, while still being available on set for questions about set extensions, digital assets and so on.
Once the team on set were up to speed and questions of a 3D nature were thin on the ground I returned back to Lola Post in Fitzrovia. There we had set up a dedicated office and team specifically for the Teletubbies. My main responsibility there was to be lead 3D TD. However I was not the only one. Tiddlytubbies had become such a large part of the show that they had their own section, led by Jonny Grew and Josh George, with much of the animation by Steve White.
In the meantime, I had become what the supervisor, Garret Honn had described as ‘chief landscape gardener’. Every external shot has a set extension. The real scale model is only 4 metres across, representing an 80 metre circle in Teletubbyland. I had come up with a set extension system which was refined as the project went on, but allowed a few of us to continually churn through the many moving or high angle shots that required distant hills, grass, clumps of flowers and trees to be seen beyond the edge of the model set. For many shots which were lower or nowhere near the edge of the set, we got away with putting a large panoramic image in the background and sliding it around from shot to shot.
For the sake of generating distant hills with realistic lighting and so on, we’d gone down the route of using Terragen, a software I’ve used many times for external landscapes. However, with its relatively slow render times, it was only truly used for the opening and closing credits where the light swings round, creating raking shadows. The rest of the time, the background is a large cyclorama, rather akin to a zoetrope, constructed out of Terragen renders. This approach kept render times down, something that was very important with such a volume of material to get through.
Naturally enough, Teletubbyland needs more than just grass and hills, so there are trees, flowers, many tufts of grass and so on. The trees are based on illustrations created by an independent illustrator, brought to life through a combination of softwares; Speedtree, Mudbox and ultimately Softimage. Additionally, we created flowers based on the scale models from Propshop, alongside the stunt ball for Laa Laa, custard bubbles, snowballs and other non-spherical assets, such as the windmill. Naturally there was toast. Custard and toast. No wonder this bunch are funny colours.
Once the project had truly gotten underway I spent roughly half my time answering questions, watching dailies, attending meetings and keeping an eye on the render farm. In that regard it was the most technical role I’ve undertaken. The rest of the time was spent tracking shots, managing who did what and occasionally doing shots myself. Props to the rest of the 3D team for their untiring efforts, especially Olly Nash and Ismini Sigala who were both in it for the long haul. Between us and Tammy Smith we’ve tracked more than enough shots for a lifetime, animated many flowers and a lot of spherical objects.
Naturally, there’s more to life than the 3D side of VFX. The 2D side was phenomenal in scale. So many blue screen shots, so little time. It all needed keying, roto work, cleanup and the final compositing too. To list everyone here would be crazy and considering only a handful of people will read down to this paragraph, i’m not going to list them all! Just be aware that for every shot on Teletubbies that you watch with your kids, about 5 people will have touched it and most of those will be compositors and roto artists. Thanks to all involved. Your efforts did not go unnoticed!
Teletubbies is currently on air in the UK and is bound to be shown elsewhere soon. Response seems to be positive so far. Due to very strict licensing agreements I can’t currently post videos from the show here, so it’s over to the BBC with you!
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: https://www.ajcgi.co.uk/blog/?p=855
This past few months I’ve been beavering away at Lola Post on 2 series of shows, creating VFX of a weathery, Earth-scale nature for Britains’ Most Extreme Weather, and shots of all scales for series 3 of How The Universe Works.
Ordinarily I’d put together blog posts before a show goes to air, but in the case of Britain’s Most Extreme Weather it slipped from my mind as soon as I rocked back onto How The Universe Works. Much of my weathery input was particle systems and strands, either using existing setups from previous shows or creating new ones as appropriate. A particular favourite of mine was a system showing the movement of air around cyclones and anticyclones; A strand system that rotates particles around many points, allowing them to move fluidly from one direction to another as if air, all wrapped around a lovely spherical Earth.
How The Universe Works is a series I’ve been on for many many months now. I first started on it in November I think. The first episode, all about our Sun, is to be shown on 10th July on Science in the USA.
For that show I took Lola’s existing Sun cutaway setup, introducing a more boiling lava-like feel through judicious use of animated fractals and grads.
Overall I’ve worked on 8 episodes with a handful of shots in each show. After all that dedication to spheres in space I am now supervising the VFX on one of the last shows for this series!
More geeky details and videos for both shows to come!
When I am asked what I do for a living, there is a follow-up question that is so common I begin to answer it right away now. That question is, “Ok, that sounds interesting. So what do you actually do? What is Visual Effects really?”
It’s a fair question actually and one whose answer changes as time goes on. If I’m stumped for an answer to the question, I try some of the following.
My staple answer now is,
“I add stuff to video footage that wasn’t there in the first place, or take it away if it wasn’t meant to be there.”
More often than not, the actual answer is,
“I create something with the appearance of having been shot as real life, but which is actually impossible to shoot, be that for practical, artistic or financial reasons.”
Ah, so that will answer it, right? Nope. I find these answers are enough for most people to understand at least vaguely what the end result of my job is. However, some are mad about film, TV dramas and whatnot and really want to show their interest. Again, fair enough. A question you might get is,
“So when you say you add things into video footage or film or whatever, how do you do that?”
That’s the really tricky one to answer, especially as everyone’s preconceptions of media, especially digital, are different. There’s the Make Awesome button right? It’s all done by the computer right?
However, wonderfully, a lot of people use Photoshop now and kind of get the concept of layering things over each other. Lately, I’ve been explaining with,
“VFX has similar principles to editing photographs, only these photos are on the move. Imagine using Photoshop for moving images, with all the layers and masks moving, the colour corrections animating and so on. I make elements, series of 2D images, that are composited on top of others, like layers are in Photoshop.”
I do almost exclusively 3D VFX, by which I mean those elements are created in a 3D package, such as Maya, rendered out as 2D images, just like photographs have no physical depth to them. I no longer get bogged down into details when explaining VFX. To begin with, I don’t even mention the many jobs available; compositor, modeller, 3D generalist, render wrangler etc. I used to say I did 3D animation, but that would lead people down the path of thinking I did Toy Story or was about to reinvent Wallace and Gromit. Another danger with the 3D moniker is the recent resurgence in 3D cinema which is another kettle of fish altogether.
So there we are. A fairly basic answer which most people understand! Incidentally, I am a 3D generalist, available to hire in London, UK. Check out my work on the home page at https://www.ajcgi.co.uk.
Not so long ago I worked at Lola Post, London, on another documentary hosted by Richard Hammond. Similar to the Journey to The Centre of The Planet and Bottom of The Ocean shows I worked on some time back, this entailed a heck of a lot of vfx.
The concept is that we see the constituent parts of scaled-down planets and the solar system being brought together in a large space over the Nevada desert. In order for Hammond to be able to present things at the necessary altitude, he is up at the top of a 2 mile high tower, which is obviously not real for various reasons. Nor is the desert much of the time. Or Hammond.
My input on the show was working on dust and sand particle systems. I was working on 2 sequences of shots. I will warn you now that some of this will get technical.
The first sequence shows a large swirling cloud of high-silica sand and iron. This includes a shot which was to become my baby for a month or two. It pulls out from Hammond at the top of the tower, back through the dust cloud swirling around him, then really far back so we see the entire 2km wide cloud in the context of the landscape around it. The whole shot is 30 seconds long.
The second sequence of shots shows the formation of Jupiter out of a large swirling disc of matter. Jupiter itself attracts dust inwards, which swirls as it approaches.
A few challenges presented themselves quite early on. One was creating particle systems in Softimage’s ICE that behaved correctly, especially when it came to dust orbiting Jupiter as the whole system itself swirls around the protosun. The initial swirling round the protosun was solved using a handy ICE compound that Lola have kicking about on their server, but if you use that twice in an ICE tree it is only evaluated once as it sets the velocity using an execute node, effectively overriding the new velocity value for each particle, rather than passing that out so it can be added to the previous velocity.
The solution to this was to break apart the compound. Integrating new nodes, including some out of a Move Towards Goal node, meant that I was able to make a new compound that I could proudly label Swirl Towards Goal. It sets the goal, then outputs a velocity which can be added to the velocity from the previous swirling compound higher up the tree. It even has sliders for distance falloff, swirl speed, and weight.
The most challenging aspect of this project was actually rendering. The swirling dust in each of my shots is made up of about 4 different clouds of particles. One alone has 60 million particles in it.
Enter Exocortex Fury, the fabled point renderer that was to save our bacon. Aside from one fluffy cloud pass per shot, rendered as a simple Mental Ray job on a separate lower detail cache, each cloud pass was rendered with Fury. Unlike traditional particle renderers that use CPU to render, Fury is a point renderer which can take advantage of the raw power of graphics cards. The upside is a far faster render compared to traditional methods, and done correctly it is beautiful. To speed things up further, particles which were offscreen were deleted so Fury wouldn’t consider them at all. Downsides are that it can flicker or buzz if you get the particle replication settings wrong and it has no verbose output to tell you quite how far it is through rendering. Between us dust monkeys many hours were spent waiting for Fury to do something or crash.
Adding to the complications was the scale of the main scene itself. The tower is rendered in Arnold, a renderer that works best when using one Softimage unit per metre. Unfortunately the huge scene scale caused problems elsewhere. In a couple of shots the camera is so high off the ground that mathematical rounding errors were causing the translation to wobble. Also, as particles, especially Fury-rendered ones, prefer to be in a small scene to a gigantic scene for similar mathematical reasons, they weren’t rendering correctly, if at all. The particles were in their own scenes for loading speed and memory overhead purposes, but in order to fix these issues, the whole system was 1/5 of the main scene scale and offset in such a way that it was closer to the scene origin yet would composite on top of the tower renders perfectly.