Life in the VFX lane: Breaking in

Breaking in to the VFX industry (or the games industry for that matter) seems like an impossible feat. 98% of the job offers ask for at least 1 year experience, but how do you get that experience if no one ever gives you your first chance? For me it was a long and winding road. I was 30 when I got my first job working on a movie. I had been working as a 3D artist on and off for about 6 years, but never in a big studio and never on a movie. For my background story (studies and career up until I decided to finally pursue my dream job) please see my previous post. Now let’s pick up where I left off…

Although I didn’t work at Pixelux anymore, I still had very good relationships with the managing directors (..and still do!). So, even though it wasn’t public news yet, I knew that MPC was really interested in DMM and  was talking about integrating it in both its Vancouver and London studios. For me that was it: the perfect opportunity, my foot in the door. DMM wasn’t widely available yet and few artists knew how to use the technology. Maybe MPC would be interested by my profile even though I lacked production experience and my reel only had R&D demos on it. So I contacted them… several times. I wrote emails and sent letters. I also tried to meet them in Paris during one of their recruitment road shows. No success. Finally I managed to see them at the View conference in Torino in November. The feedback I got there was pretty positive, but still, I didn’t hear back from them…

Thanks to several professionals at tradeshows who were kind enough to critique my reel, I knew my main weakness was that none of my work was actual production work. So I decided to try and acquire more experience in small commercial companies. I had forgotten about  MPC and was working at boutiq ag in Zurich when I got an email from their recruiting team in February asking me if I could do a phone interview with the Head of the FX Department. I was over the moon… and sooo stressed! On D day, I had a massive flu and didn’t feel I was at the top of my game. I thought the interview didn’t go too well. I was so depressed. But a couple of days later I got an offer to start as a Junior FX TD in London… 6 months later in August! I was in!

So what made it happen for me?  I would say work and persistence did help, but also quite a bit of luck and good timing. What advice would I give to the new starters out there?

First of all be sure this is what you want to do. It’s not an easy career. The industry is unstable. You never know when you will be out of work. When you have a job, you often work long hours and week-ends. When you don’t, you can’t really relax and unwind from all the crazy work because you have to look for your next gig.  The schedules are unpredictable so it’s hard to make any kind of plans. You might need to relocate several times to follow the job market. All of this can be quite a strain on your personal life. Also, you will not always get recognition for your hard work and you will definitely not make loads of money.

That being said, I love my job and hope to be able to do it for years to come… For me it’s all about the passion.  My childhood dream was to be a ballerina. Everyone would tell me that it’s  a gruesome career: it is very hard on your body, most of the time you are in some kind of physical pain, the majority of dancers never become soloist and spend their whole career in the shadows of the corps de ballet, you usually retire around 40, the pay isn’t good, etc. But I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted to do, no matter what. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about VFX. The conditions aren’t ideal, but I am willing to put up with them to do what I love. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to have an easier work environment and if there is anything I can do to help make it happen I will. But right now these are the circumstances and if you want to get into this industry, you have to be aware of them and be prepared to make do.

Once you are sure you are ready for this, be persistent. It might not work right away, but don’t give up, just continue building your skills and try again later. Also, get some honest advice. Knowing where you stand and what you have to improve is very important. Don’t be too shy. I have a hard time showing my work, I never think it’s good enough, but getting criticism is the only way to improve. You can post your work on forums like cgtalk, but the best is getting advice from professionals. If you don’t know any, go to tradeshows and meet people. I found that if you ask them nicely and they aren’t too busy, most artists are happy to give you feedback.

Finally one factor I really underestimated is timing. At the end of the day, studios have work and need you or they don’t. You can be the greatest, most talented artist out there, if there is no work, there is no work! VFX is a very irregular industry: one day the studios are bringing in artists from everywhere to handle the massive workload and the next they are letting everyone go because a production has been pushed back. So try to know what’s happening in the industry: where the work is, who is hiring, who is firing, who just landed the next big project. The news on the studios’ websites aren’t necessarily up to date but I find social networks, LinkedIn and twitter to be very effective.

I hope these humble tidbits will help a few of you out there. Don’t hesitate to ask if there is another subject you would like me to talk about. My next post will probably be about my first days at MPC and life in a big studio.

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…

Life in the VFX lane

It took me a long time to break into the industry and before I did, I always wondered what it was like to work in a big VFX studio. You hear horror stories about long hours and crazy schedules but everyone still wants to get in. You want to be part of these amazing projects, create beautiful imagery, see how those movies you admire are made. So I decided to start a series of posts about my experience.  A few disclaimers: these are only my personal ramblings and I haven’t been in this industry long enough to know how it works elsewhere. Also there are certain things I won’t be able to talk about because of NDAs. But I hope some people will find this helpful. If you would like me to write about a certain aspect or subject, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I will try to address it. Stay tuned: first episode about breaking in will be posted soon.

Annecy part 3: Friday and Saturday

I’m so sorry this is such old news…it took me ages to get this online…

Friday 11th June part 2

16:00 Making of Pixar: Three Dimensional Storytelling

Finally! The world premiere screening of Day&Night! Catch it before Toy Story 3 or if you live in a country where it’s not out yet… (yeah… same here…) you can see an exclusive clip here.

I think the idea is genius! I really like the integration of 2D and 3D animation. On the story side though I prefered Partly Cloudy. Peter Sohn’s short really got to me. I cry each and every time I see it. I just can’t help myself. Day & Night isn’t as strong emotionally imo. But it’s more interesting considering it uses animation like never before.

After the screening, Teddy Newton, the director, talked about the making of. His initial idea came from a keyhole he was doodling. He added eyes and hands and thought the character looked rather fun. During a trip to Rome, he saw the view of St Peters through the Knight’s of Malta key hole and knew he wanted to do something with this idea…

The toughest part was to get the two mediums to work seamlessly together. He saw it in a very candid way at the beginning and thought it would be pretty simple, but realised quickly that they were actually going to make 3 movies in one: the 3D movie by day, the 3D movie by night and the 2D animation above it all. They had to find a way for the 2D and 3D animations to be framed and timed correctly even though the 2 teams could not see each others work! There was a lot of back and forth and tweaking and adjustments, but I must say, once again, they nailed it!

The second talk was about the use of stereoscopic 3D at Pixar by Bob Whitehill, Stereoscopic Supervisor. At first there was a lot of concern at Pixar about stereo: did they need it, wouldn’t it be distracting, etc.?  His main message was that the way they treat 3D at Pixar is the same as they treat all other techniques: it has to serve the story. It shouldn’t cry for attention, it should just blend in and enhance the mood of the shot.

After the conference I went back to the trade show to clean up the booth. In the evening I met up with friends for diner and drinks. We then went to a party at one of their friend’s apartment. Once again met lots of interesting people and had a great night. Can’t believe it’s the last “Annecy soirée” already!

Saturday 12th June

Only screenings today! Missed the morning one (hard to get up early and had packing to do…)

14:00 Redline
Director Takeshi Koike, Japan, 2009
Wow now that’s crazy anime! Fast paced, lots of techno music, harsh lines and bright colors, cheesy script. I must say it’s not my fave, but it was interesting to see….

18:00 Evangelion shin gekijoban: ha
Direction: Hideaki Anno, Japan, 2009
It is the second of four films released in the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy based on the original anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. I haven’t seen the series nor the first film so there are somw parts of the plot that I didn’t fully understand. Still it was a nice anime if not amazing.

I can’t believe the 50th edition is already over… It was a great year. I had a wonderful time even though I’m totally exhausted! Can’t wait for next year! 🙂

Annecy part 2: Thursday and Friday

Day 4: Thursday 10th June

I was at the booth for the opening at 9am: a bit hard after yesterday’s party… But I got to leave it to attend the Walt Disney presentation and a few recruitment sessions.

12:00 Walt Disney presentation and recruitment sessions

They presented their talent development program and showed us the reels that got several of their trainees into the program. This was very interesting as it illustrated the kind of work they were looking for. They also showed us what the interns worked on at Disney and how they improved their skills.
On the announcement front, not much except for the new Tangled trailer which is now out on the internet. They also told us they were working on bringing back Winnie the Pooh in 2D.

In the afternoon I went to a couple more recruitment sessions before returning to the booth for the rest of the afternoon. Two friends from Geneva also came for the day. We tried to go to the Gobelins cocktail party but didn’t have any invitations. So we went for drinks and diner in Annecy’s old town. In the evening Martin Solveig, a famous French DJ was mixing on the Paquier (big lawn in front of the lake and center of the Festival). I’m not a big fan of his but I was amazed by the number of people there! It was totally crazy!

Day 5: Friday 11th June

Last day of the MIFA already. Was at the booth the whole morning but left at 2pm to attend the Walt Disney Princess and the Frog presentation and the first screening of Pixar’s day and Night short and conference.

14:00 : Making of Disney : The Art of Traditional Animation by Ron Clements and John Musker

John Lasseter was especially excited to use New Orleans as  the setting for this movies because it’s one of his favourite cities. During the year of pre-production they organised  several trips to inspire the team. Their first visit was in March 2006 during the Jazz Festival. They couldn’t help but notice that music and food were two themes central to New Orleans.

The visual development process starts pretty early on, even before the script is finished. In this way it can influence the story and vice versa. For example, as the villain is called the Master of Shadows, one of the vis dev artists imagined giving him an army of shadows. They liked the idea and incorporated that into the script.

The next step is storyboarding. It starts pretty early as well. A lot of the rewriting and editing happens then rather than on the script. Once again the visuals are very important and can drive the story. They also like having the different storyboard artist’s input to enhance the script.

Influences and inspiration for the look of the film:

  • Aaron Douglas, a Harlem renaissance artist for Tiana’s soong.
  • Other disney movies:  Bambi for the softness of the rendering, Lady and the Tramp as it was also set in New Orleans
  • The color code they used is the same as Mardi Gras: purple, yellow and green. Purple stands for evil, Yellow for warmth and home, and Green for good with the frogs and the bayou.

Questions:

Was everything hand drawn?
They wanted to stay away from CG as much as possible to celebrate hand-drawn animation. All in-betweens are hand drawn and the clean up was done on paper. Only for FX did they go paperless and therefore some of the in betweens are CG.

Attention: SPOILER!
How did they handle the death of a major character in a child’s movie?
Funerals in New Orleans are very unique and they wanted to show that in their movie. Also they liked the idea of revisiting the whole death and resurrection theme which is often present in Disney movies (Snow White) but with a twist. And even though Ray dies, he is reunited with his love… Love transcends everything…

How has it been working together for 25 years?
They argue a lot but also listen to each other. They like bouncing ideas off one another, especially during the writing of the script, which they do together. As for directing they split the sequences and each one gets his own. But it still feels as a whole probably because their sensibilities are very similar. They have a very similar background as well.

Pixar conference and Saturday screenings coming soon… 🙂

Annecy part 1: Monday to Wednesday

So here’s part 1 of my week’s recap.

Day 1: Monday 7th June

Monday is always a slow day. The conferences meetings and fair haven’t started yet so you can spend the day walking around Annecy’s charming old town and watching some cool animation.

My first screening was only scheduled for 14:00 so I spent the morning and lunch break reading all the different programs,: information booklets etc. they handed me at registration. There’s so much to see! I wish I could divide myself into several bodies… but well… will have to make a choice… On top of that, Pixelux has a booth at the MIFA this year, so I will have to spend a fair amount of time there doing DMM demos.

14:00 Commissioned films in competition
I like starting with commissioned films. Most of them are pretty short so the pacing is fast. Keeps things entertaining! My faves:
Harmonix “The Beatles: Rock Band”, Pete Candeland, Passion Pictures
Aides “Graffiti”, Yoann Lemoine, Wanda Productions (Warning: content inappropriate for some users)
Going West, Martin Andersen & Line Andersen, Colenso BBDO
Sour “hibi no neiro”, Masashi Kawamura & Hal Kirkland & Magiko Nakamura & Masayoshi Nakamura

16:00 Graduation films in competition 3
Interesting selection. Quite a few faves:
The Lighthouse keeper, david Francois & Rony Hotin & Jeremie Moreau & Baptiste Rogron & Gaelle Thierry & Mailys Vallade, Gobelins l’Ecole de l’Image
Once again a beautiful short from les Gobelins.
Benigni, Elli Vuorinen & Jasmini Ottelin & Pinja Partanen, Turku Arts Academy
Funny and weird. Entertaining till the end.
Parade, Pierre-Emmanuel Lyet, Doncvoila / Petite Ceinture
Great use of animation
KungFu Bunny 3 – Counterattack, Zhi Yong Li, Communication University of China
Just plain fun!

18:00 Short films in competition
Good but not great. My fave:
The Lost Thing, Andrew Ruhemann & Shaun Tan, Passion Pictures Australia PTY LTD

Day 2: Tueday 8th June

Nothing much today: we had to install our booth and the furniture was late. The good thing is we are just opposite Disney so we should get a lot of traffic and hopefully a glimpse at their cool demos.

21:00 Feature Film in Competition no 5: Summer Wars
Director: Mamoru Hosody, Prod Madhouse inc, Japan, 2009
In a world where the Oz virtual platform has replaced internet, everyone has a second life. One summer in the country a family finds itself confronted with a world crisis coming from Oz. A war begins. Watch trailer.
Interesting movie. Funny at times. Some weird twists in the story. I think there are just too many themes, too much going on so nothing really gets developed properly. It felt like the story was jumping all over the place.

Day 3: Wednesday 9th June

1st day of the MIFA. I spent most if my time at the booth, but still got a chance to attend a few conferences:

9:30 Conference: VFX and Animation
I couldn’t attend the whole conference but only one talk and a half:

Thomas Duval Director of VFX at Duran Duboi

He talked about the recreation of the Veldiv for the movie “la Rafle”. They had very little reference which made it much more difficult for them. Moreover, the director wanted everything to be as close to reality as possible.
He also explained their pipeline and how they plan budgets.

Nicolas Scapel Head of Rigging at Framestore

He talked about his work on the movie “Where the Wild Things Are”. I found this talk more interesting but unfortunately had to leave before the end.
I didn’t know that there had been quite a few attempts to adapt the book before, including a 2D and 3D hybrid animation by John Lasseter in 1983!
The shooting began in 2006. Spike Jones wanted everything to be live action. They even built very complicated animatronics to animate the monster’s faces. Unfortunately they realised on set that this was unusable so they just shot the actors with the suits and masks with no facial expressions.  What the director wanted Framestore to do was just animate the faces. He was happy with everything he shot but needed the monster’s faces to show some acting. They used a technique called projection mapping. It’s a kind of hybrid of warping and 3D.

11:00 Dreamworks presentation and recruitment session
Dreamworks presented their different offices in the US and India. They showed us pictures of the studios and staff and explained how the pipeline worked etc.  They also showed us a few special tidbits. The new Megamind trailer and…. a work in progress of a Kung Fu Panda 2 shot! 🙂 I really liked the first movie. Probably one of my Dreamworks favourite with Shrek. I hope the sequel will be as good…
As for the recruitment session, it was a bit rushed. There were so many people! Most of them were animators and concept artists. There was only one lighter nad I was the only FX person. I gave them my demo reel and CV but they didn’t have the time to look at it so well… we’ll see..

After the MIFA closed at 19:00 there was an opening day cocktail in the beautiful garden in front of the Imperial followed by the opening party at 21:00. Met some great people and just had a wonderful time! 🙂 This year the party was held at the Palace de Menthon which is about 20 minutes away. I must say the setting was amazing! The palace overlooks the lake and was lit up for the occasion. It looked stunning. I think that’s one of the reasons Annecy is so popular: it’s so beautiful. The turquoise lake, the mountains, the Imperial palace, the old town, the canal, all of it is really charming.

Annecy D-2

Yay! The Annecy Animation Film Festival is only 2 days away! Looking forward to a week of animation, meetings, conferences, talks, networking and much more in the beautiful city by the lake. It will be my 4th (or 5th?) time attending.. .and I love it there! Pixelux has a booth this year, so I won’t be able to run around as much. But I still have tickets for a couple of cool shows and I’ll try to keep track of what I’ll be up to here…