VFX Festival 2015: Day 2 - VFX Enthusiasts

Pearson College and Escape Studios teamed up to bring us a three day festival jam packed with presentations, exclusive showcases and screenings for anyone involved in or aspiring to be a part of the visual effects industry. Alongside the days scheduled talks, there was also an exhibition hub that gave everyone the chance to meet industry leaders and fellow ticket holders. I decided to go to the second day of the festival, designed for those "looking to kick-start their career within the industry".


Exclusive Animation Showcase

Non-realistic CG with Blue Zoo

Tom Box, Dave Hunt

Blue Zoo are a multi BAFTA award winning animation studio in London that focus on using computer generated characters with children's television being their main target audience. They also, however, do a lot of creature commercials. Generally the work they do is divided in to production and studio work, creative studio work and shorts and IP development. The production work is much more regular, reoccurring television series for example, and in this type of studio the team are very focused in their skill set . Creative studio work has much quicker turnovers of projects, with extremely quick deadlines and people tending to work more as generalists in order to complete the tasks at hand. Shorts are a great way to do staff development within the studio, giving animators and artists within the team a chance to step up and direct a project.

Dave Hunt stated that art direction is definitely something he believes you get better at the more you do, as he learnt from leading the company's short Dual. The studio is predominantly Maya focused - using it for everything from animating to rigging and lighting. They use Arnold as a renderer, although speak highly of Mental Ray also, but found that so many problems are fixed with Arnold that the fewer sampling issues and generally improved efficiency make it a better choice. They've also started using Nuke for projects that use painted on basic renders to project geometry in to a scene.


VFX Showcase

SSE Maya with The Mill

Alex Hammond, Lead 3D Artist

Due to the success of the SSE commercial featuring Maya the orangutan, the character pipeline at The Mill has recently evolved. The initial brief they were given was that they wanted the advert to show seeing energy through fresh eyes, and representing a balance between humans and nature. Naturalistic beauty and childlike innocence were two key aspects to keep in mind during the design process. One of the things The Mill take pride in is their strong integration of computer generated characters in to live action back plates, they ensure this by making sure that from a cg point of view, the shots are extremely difficult to achieve therefore making it more believable. One of the main points Alex got across in the talk was how crucial reference is; both photographs and video footage were taken in large quantities of an orangutan named Rubi at Alberquerque Zoo. They made sure to base the artistic model on a single real life orangutan so as to eliminate the design process, allowing for a more efficient pipeline and ensuring that they were able to collect enough reference.

When shooting the live action plates, they make sure to have: a clean plate, an actor plate, a dummy plate and a HDR/chrome ball plate so that they can work to the highest quality possible. Several stages of animation are also used to capture the smooth and graceful way that an orangutan moves. XSI is used to layer on top of the keyed animation, to animate the muscle and hair layers for added realism. The animators are even given an idea of the intensity of the light in each shot so that the pupils can be dilated accordingly.

The Mill is very client focused, and one of their main aims is convincing the clients that they can achieve photo real quality. In a Q&A session at the end, Alex was asked what inspired him to get in to the visual effects industry and how he managed it. His answer was that Jurassic Park was his inspiration, and becoming a runner at The Mill gave him his opportunity.


Escape Studios Alumni - Where Are They Now?

Alastair Cross - Lighting TD, Taran Spear - Digital Compositor and Caroline Pires - VFX Supervisor

This was a really interesting opportunity to hear what each individual had experienced after graduating in their selected fields. Some of the advice they gave was incredibly valuable, the thing I personally took away from it was not to sit back and be happy with where you're at, pushing yourself is the best thing you can do because the hard workers get the furthest. A lot of questions were asked about whether or not students should focus on one specialism or be more generalist, and the answer given was different to any I'd heard before: working in a range of styles can make you a generalist as well as working with multiple skills, so just because you have chosen a specific skill does not mean you can't apply yourself to more than career. Gaining industry experience whilst making a name for yourself is incredibly valuable - however freelancing gives you much more control and that means you might have more time for personal projects. Different types of studios will mean having different experiences when working, if you work in advertising then you'll be doing short projects whereas the film and television industry will have you working on one thing for a very long time.


Careers in VFX

Phillip Attfield - Creative Skillset, Paolo Cavalier - Bleed FX, David Sheldon Hicks - Territory, David Delve - ILM, Simon Wright - The Mill, Henry Bull - Double Negative, Gil James - Nvizible

Once again, there was a big focus on whether or not generalists were desirable within a company or if it was preferred for recent graduates to have specialised in a specific skill. A lot of the people on the panel seemed to agree upon both technical skills are artistic skills being equally important no matter what company you're working for, keeping up life drawing or photography is vital despite working with computers for the majority of your job. Having an understanding of the entirety of the pipeline in your industry is also vitally important - this makes you a more well rounded artist and gives you a credibility. If you can understand all areas, it makes you a potential leader for future projects. Ideally, all of the team within a company could see the project through from start to finish but each have their specialist skills.

Another question asked was how each of the individual companies compete for work among themselves; each company has their specialties and many of them have relationships with producers and directors that allow them to work on certain features. There are always different types of shots that different studios will go for, and occasionally that means competing against one another.

Interestingly and most relevant for me personally was the show reel advice that was given. According to the industry members, the first twenty seconds of a reel is absolutely key and most employers won't have the time to look beyond that. Keeping it short is essential, and even more so is not having a ridiculously annoying soundtrack playing in the background! Always include a breakdown of your reel also, this adds a level of professionalism. Most companies have a combination of core staff and contractors, in order to be considered as core staff you have to make yourself seen as a key asset. Quite often the people who start off as runners will become core staff, due to their dedication to the company.


Games Showcase

Lumino City with State of Play Games - "Keeping It Real"

Luke Whittaker

State of Play Games are an indie studio who use handmade real elements to make digital games combined with a love of story and puzzle adventures. Doing things by hand, Luke feels, breaks down the wall between the intentions of the designer and the final outcome. This is because it makes the audience care. State of Play Games like making things that sound impossible and seem like fun. One of their main rules that they follow when designing is to let the idea rule how you use the tools, not the other way around.


VFX Showcase

Guardians of the Galaxy with Framestore

Kyle McCulloh, VFX Supervisor

We were lucky enough to be shown the test shot that Framestore did to win being able to create and animate Rocket racoon. It was incredibly cool and you got a real feel for the final character that came through in the movie. They also did tons of movement studies to perfect this before working on the final scenes, such as hopping on and off of a chair and climbing on to Groot. It took a long time to perfect the facial animation due to the nature of the fur on his face hiding the subtleties that could otherwise be seen on a human facial rig. Despite rumours stating otherwise, all of the animation for both Rocket and Groot in the movie was hand keyed.

All three of Rocket's different costumes faced their own challenges when it came to rigging. The technology from Iron Man's costume was actually used to create Rocket's yellow costume, and the crotch in particular took a long time to get just right according to Kyle. During filming, a dummy model was carried around alongside a chrome/grey ball so as to get perfect lighting for the characters in the final plates.

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