Life in the VFX lane: Background

I was going to start this series with my breaking in story, but realized I should probably give a bit more information about my background and studies first. My career hasn’t really been straight forward. I only landed my first job working on a movie at the ripe old age of 30. In some ways I think that is a blessing. You really have to be sure this is what you want to survive in this industry. It is harsh. If you are just out of school, get a job and think it’s going to be a walk in the park, you might be disappointed.

But lets start at the beginning. I was born in Geneva, Switzerland and my childhood dream was to be a ballerina. That dream didn’t come true but it taught me a few things. One of them is that you have to be persistent. You have to be sure of what you want and be willing to make sacrifices to get there. As you may have guessed, the film industry in Switzerland is very small. When I graduated from high school and stopped dancing, I was a bit lost. The only other thing I was passionate about was movies and in particular what had to do with the look of a movie: production design, cinematography and most of all special effects. I wanted to build models, create sets, imagine new worlds. On the other hand, I also wanted a university degree, some kind of paper I could rely on. It seemed impossible to get both. At the same time, I was lucky enough to meet people who introduced me to computer graphics and digital visual effects. Since I wasn’t a big fan of computers, I wasn’t sure it was for me, but I wanted to try it out: it might be the answer I was looking for. So I spent my savings and enrolled in the NYU summer course: Introduction to Computer Animation and Visual Effects. I fell in love immediately. I had so much fun playing around in Maya and Shake, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living.

But I still didn’t know how to get there. What should I study? Where should I go? There were very few animation schools at the time and the ones I checked out were all very expensive. I finally enrolled at the Geneva University in… IT! This might seem like a stretch but there were a few good reasons for my choice. First education in Switzerland is really cheap (I only paid about 500$ per semester… yeah we are very lucky). Second, a computer graphics research lab (MIRALab) was part of the faculty so we would be getting a few courses on computer graphics, 3D animation etc. and I would be able to do my thesis in that field. Finally, I wasn’t ready to leave my family, friends, and boyfriend behind to go to some far away school. So I crammed through network, programming and data base courses for 3 and a half years and did my thesis on garment simulation for children. After graduation I considered packing my things and leaving, but once again, personally, the timing was bad. I decided to further my education and do a Master of Advanced Studies in Computer Graphics at the Polytechnic School of Lausanne. It consisted in a year of courses about graphics, programming, computer vision, virtual worlds etc. and 6 extra months working on a thesis (my subject was: Virtual Mirror: Real-time motion capture for virtual-try-on).

During my studies, I also got a job at MIRALab. At first I was just an administrative auxiliary (I made digital copies of old movies, archived press releases, organised documents etc.) but as my CG skills improved, they started trusting me with a few easy tasks. I was particularly interested in motion capture: the lab had a Vicon optical capture system and I would grab every chance I could to work with it. Eventually my work paid off and I got promoted to research assistant. I worked with the PhD students and researchers to create demos showcasing their work and by the time I left, I was responsible for the recording and post-processing of all the motion capture data.

After graduating, I took 9 months off to see the world. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, but that is another story… When I came back, I wanted to stay a few months with my friends and family. I was planning on doing some web design work and then leaving to pursue my dream of working in the film industry. Meanwhile, one of the former PhD students from MIRALab told me that a small startup was looking for a 3D artist and that’s how I landed a job at Pixelux Entertainment, the company who invented DMM (digital molecular matter). DMM is a Finite Element Analysis based simulation system that has been used in major video games and movies (for more info check out this fxguide article). When I started, the plug-in for Maya was still in development and the first major game including DMM (Star War the Force Unleashed) hadn’t been released yet. As the only 3D artist in the company, my job was pretty diverse. I tested the software, worked with the programmers to identify problems or develop new tools, created demos, went to trade shows, gave DMM courses, wrote tutorials, and even helped develop game prototypes. It was a great experience and I loved my job. Unfortunately about 2 years later, Pixelux underwent a massive restructuring and laid off all the 3D artists. Around the same time, MPC started to test DMM in their Vancouver pipeline. So I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for me to finally try and break into the VFX industry… and how that happened will be in my next post…


Annecy 2012: Wednesday

Today is the opening of the MIFA ( International Animation Film Market ) where 2,400 industry professionals from TV, cinema or new platforms from all over the world come together. The trade show is getting bigger and bigger every year, it’s impressive!

The Creative Focus also organises recruitment sessions, meetings and project presentations. The goal of these presentations is to support animation projects by giving them visibility and promotion. Thus, they will hopefully find the partners and producers they need to get off the ground. There are four different categories : short films, feature films, TV series and cross-media. A sponsor introduces each project, then the author explains his vision. I went to the Short Film selection:

  • Drole d’oiseau (Phuong Mai NGUYEN, France)
  • Tututú (Rosa Gertrudis PERIS MEDINA, Spain)
  • Parcham dar Sahel (Sarah SAIDAN, Iran)
  • Aube musicale ( Mauro CARRARO, Switzerland)
  • Wayang, les Ombres de Java ( Guillaume DELAUNAY and Sébastien D’ABRIGEON, France)

Apart from the trade show, the MIFA also arranges presentations. I went to the Side Effects Houdini 12 demo. The capabilities for this software are pretty impressive and I can understand why more and more facilities seem to turn to it for FX. I already started dabbling with it last year, but I am determined to learn more now. They also have a lot of free learning material on their website, which is really cool.


Annecy 2012: Tuesday

Yay it’s time to head to Annecy again, time to watch some amazing animation, listen to interesting conferences, learn more about the state of the art, meet cool people and overall enjoy yourself. The Annecy International Animation Festival is one of the biggest events dedicated to this medium with over 7000 participants. The 2012 edition started on Monday the 4th of June but Tuesday was my first day. Unfortunately I didn’t buy my accrediation in advance, so I couldn’t reserve any seats. One tip: get your accreditation early and be online the minute the reservations open. That’s the only way to get tickets to the most sought after sessions (anything Pixar or Disney, advanced screenings and making ofs).

I started off with a conference about hybridisation issues. Solidanim talked about their experience using motion capture in production and the development of their new product: Solidtrack. This system enables the previsualization of VFX by combining real time camera tracking and augmented reality. Platige Image presented “Another day of Life”, the first feature film by director Damian Nenow. It mixes the same stylised 3D animation he used in “Paths of Hate” and documentary footage. Finally Autour de minuit showed diferent examples of shorts and series that they produced, all of which mix different styles and mediums. I particularly liked the series  Babioles that will soon air on Canal Plus.

The line to get a ticket for the Making of Brave was incredibly long: impossible to get a seat. So I started queuing extra early for the next session: the Disney presentation about Wreck it Ralph, their next feature animation and Paperman a new short directed by John Kahrs. The over 2 hour wait paid off. Wreck it Ralph looks really fun. We got to see the first 10 minutes and the trailer (one day before it’s official release). Lorelay Bove, the Visual Development Supervisor showed us quite a few really nice designs. As for Paperman… well it’s just AMAZING! When I saw Tangled, I was really happy: it felt like Disney was finally back. With this short, they totally blew my mind. The story is pretty basic but the way it is told is superb: the pacing is right, the music is right, and the graphics… *sigh*… sooo beautiful… You don’t really know what you are looking at: 3D? 2D? both?… and you don’t care. It just looks stunning!

My last screening for the day was the 2nd selection of short movies in competition. As usual a very diverse selection, some I liked , some I didn’t, some I found interesting, some I didn’t understand at all.. My faves: Chinti by Natalia Mirzoyan for Russia and Hi-no-youjin by Katsuhiro Otomo for Japan (and if you are wondering, yes it is THE Katsuhiro Otomo…)

Overall a very good start to what will certainly be a great week!

Imaging the future 2011

I will be in Neuchâtel tomorrow for the Imaging the Future Symposium. I think it will be my 3rd time attending. I even spoke there in 2009 (answered a few questions about DMM at the end of Raphaël Arrigoni’s talk presenting Pixelux.) Each edition was great and I got to meet lots of very interesting people. So really looking forward to it! A few speakers:

  • Nicolas Aithadi, VFX supervisor, The Moving Picture Company, GB – X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Yates, 2010)
  • Marc Umé, VFX supervisor, Digital Graphics, DE – The Secret of Kells (Moore & Twomey, 2009), Home (Meier, 2008)
  • Hugues Martin, VFX supervisor, Independent, FR – Mirages (Selhami, 2010), Djinns (H. & S. Martin, 2009)
  • Karen Goulekas, VFX supervisor, Independent, US – Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011), 10’000 BC (Emmerich, 2008), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997)

There will also be a showcase of works by swiss companies presented by the association Swiss Made VFX.

You can check out the full program here. Please stay tuned for my report of the day!

Learning new stuff: Digital tutors and scripting in Maya

Well… Long time no update…

I started to work at boutiq ag, an animation and motion graphics production company in Zurich. There’s only one other 3D artist so we pretty much have to tackle anything that is thrown at us. Which is why I have been trying to learn as much as possible!

Mainly I have been watching a lot of Digital Tutors tutorials. I can only recommend them. There are so many topics to choose from, it’s amazing. Some lessons are better (or at least clearer for me) than others but the overall quality is really good. For now I have been concentrating on learning Realflow, mental rendering techniques (shaders, sub surface scattering, global illumination, render passes, etc.) and brushing up on mel and python scripting.  Houdini is next on my list…

I have also decided to work some more on my scripting skills. I just bought 2 books: MEL Scripting for Maya Animators and Beginning Python: From Novice to Professional. I won’t be recieving them for a few weeks so in the meantime here are some cool internet links I’ll be checking out:

If anyone knows of any other good ressources, please let me know! Thanks!