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Changing Roles — Part 1: The Digital Production Artist

Karen Raugust investigates how business, creative and technological trends are transforming the vfx industry and the artists place in it.

Technological advances, like motion capture in Alexander, are just a part of why the role of digital artists is changing. © 2004 IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH and Co. 3 Produktions KG. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Technological advances, like motion capture in Alexander, are just a part of why the role of digital artists is changing. © 2004 IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH and Co. 3 Produktions KG. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The role of the digital production artist is in transition, in ways both subtle and revolutionary, due to a number of business, technological and creative trends. One critical issue is the increasingly international scope of the vfx industry. More studios in Europe and Asia are capable of doing high-quality visual effects, and more cost-conscious U.S. studios are willing to look at companies outside this country for vfx work.

Europe has some really first-class production companies that can compete with anyone here, and some countries that were not on the map five years ago are producing some fairly significant work, says Isaac Kerlow, who ran digital production for The Walt Disney Co. for 10 years before leaving to become an independent director for CG-animated projects. While many point to job loss as a key result of this internationalization and the outsourcing and downsizing associated with it Kerlow argues that the transformation will be more fundamental. Its about rethinking what we do here and where we fit, he adds, stressing that U.S. artists and companies need to think about these issues now and not wait until the world gets even smaller.

The challenge is how you work within that [new international reality] and keep the quality of work high, suggests Richard Kidd, vfx supervisor at L.A.-based Catalyst Media, who has traveled to Taiwan, Cape Town and Toronto in recent weeks for both shooting and post work. You might not want to live in some third-world country, but you still want to be part of the process. For U.S.-based companies, that means maintaining relationships with directors and figuring out the best way to fill a critical need often related to quality control even when much of the work is done offshore.

Behind all that we do are the MBAs and the marketing people, notes Lawrence Huang, currently a lighting sequence supervisor at Omation Studios, working on Steve Oedekerks CG-animated The Barnyard, a 2005 Nickelodeon feature film. Huang points out that filmmakers have to be financially responsible to their investors, which means they will seek inexpensive options where possible. Quality-wise, if they can find [an overseas] studio that can do it the way they want it, they will. Its just like the car. Now weve become a similar kind of product line.

Just as many car engines continue to be designed in Japan even as parts are sourced from Thailand, a similar situation will occur in film, Huang believes. The most important elements story, art and character design will be centered in the U.S., while animation and vfx work will be outsourced. Some of the images [created abroad] are better than in America, he insists. But the story and marketing skills are not mature enough to get it out there worldwide. While tasks such as digitizing main character models, motion capture, environment modeling and textures, lighting and vfx will increasingly be farmed out, Huang believes the U.S. is at least 10 years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the all-important components of story, design and marketing.

Bay Raitt was key in giving Gollum his distinctive look. © 2002 New Line Prods. All rights reserved.

Bay Raitt was key in giving Gollum his distinctive look. © 2002 New Line Prods. All rights reserved.

While globalization, outsourcing and downsizing will lead to job losses in the short term, many artists view these trends as ultimately a positive for the industry. I think that the cultures found in L.A. and New York have had a strangle-hold on global media for a long time, says Bay Raitt, the former creature facial lead at Weta Digital, responsible for building Gollums facial system in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think people have abused this situation to make a lot of money and sell poor-quality products to the world, and now were seeing some blowback on that. I think people who focus on making a good product in an efficient manner do well, regardless of location.

The Hollywood CG establishment is eroding, Raitt continues. I think as more and more directors who know 3D start taking the reigns, a lot of the infrastructure and job descriptions involved in todays filmmaking will go away. People will lose jobs at first, but I think of this as a creative kind of destruction, like the burning of a forest. I look forward to the day when a CG auteur, not a studio, is `cast to deliver a lead character for a film. I think the future of this industry is going to the artists, not to the factories.

Adds Rusty Ippolito, a freelance CG supervisor with his own company, Make Inc: Small boutiques can accommodate a lot more work. Rather than having instructions dictated by someone through a chain of command, as in the past, independents now handle their own bids, talk to creatives and DPs directly, do their own rigs, work on the set and oversee all aspects of the vfx sequences for which theyre responsible. Im in charge of it. The blueprint of the fx is completely driven by me.

Theres more competition, but its good competition that raises the level of what we all do, Kerlow adds. A decade ago, you were one of the big players or you didnt play. Now, a lot of work is being done by smaller companies that didnt exist four, five, six years go. People are pursuing CG-animated projects independently. Its not limited to a half dozen studios.

Technology Advances

Ongoing improvements in speed, efficiency and cost have had a greater impact on the work of the digital production artist to date than more high-profile innovations such as realtime rendering and motion capture/performance capture, which will deliver big time further down the road. Many artists, however, consider realtime rendering and MoCap more marketing hype than reality, even though they are incorporated in certain situations.

For example, in film and commercial work, studios rely on realtime technologies for previs. Companies such as Industrial Light & Magic have proprietary tools that allow realtime feedback on the set. Studios increasingly use motion capture for crowd scenes and battle sequences in such films as Alexander, Gladiator and Titanic. It speeds up the process for photoreal [crowd scenes] and is the most efficient way to cut the costs, explains Huang.

MoCap is still used mainly just in high-budget situations, however, and it has a way to go technologically. It generally doesnt work well yet for facial animation, for instance, unless combined with keyframe information, hence the current backlash aimed at The Polar Express, despite its advances in performance capture. Ive seen eyeball-capture technology thats really pushing the envelope, says Ippolito. But most MoCap is either creepy or just bad.

The technologies that are having a bigger impact include low-cost 3D tracking software and inexpensive-but-powerful rendering packages such as mental ray, motion-blur technologies, better occlusion shaders and improved compositing packages. They make me more attractive to hire again, Ippolito says. As for MoCap and realtime rendering, They dont make an impact in my life right now.

Artist Aaron Sims knows that no matter how advanced technology gets, characters always come first, as displayed in his personal short film/book project Tethered Islands. © Aaron Sims.

Artist Aaron Sims knows that no matter how advanced technology gets, characters always come first, as displayed in his personal short film/book project Tethered Islands. © Aaron Sims.

Stan Winston Studios art director Aaron Sims, who has an instructional DVD on 3D design coming out soon, sees a trend toward products that bridge the gap between traditional artists and digital artists. He cites Zbrush, which has become a critical design tool at the studio (along with Softimage XSI), as an example of a package that makes digital design and virtual sculpting user-friendlier for traditional designers.

At Stan Winston Studios, physical and digital artists work together to create the creatures, using a hybrid approach where we marry the two [disciplines], explains Sims. The goal is to create a character that becomes part of the story rather than a technical novelty where viewers are caught up in trying to identify the techniques used to make it. We dont want it to stand out as bad CG or a bad puppet. The modern audience can pinpoint stuff really quickly. It shouldnt look like an effect unless thats intentional.

New technology is causing job descriptions to merge and creating a need for generalists. Its making it possible for a small crew of multi-talented people to outperform a CG factory of 100 specialists, insists Raitt. This has far-reaching ramifications, from peoples livelihoods to the entry into the market of low-budget CG projects.

As ILM goes through a major consolidation and infrastructure shift with its move into the new Presidio facility in San Francisco next summer, its artists have been affected by this convergence of skill sets, according to Colum Slevin, director of computer graphics. ILM has long been rooted in specialization. But weve taken a hard look at our pipeline, and made a concerted effort to walk away from specialization and more toward a generalized approach. We had been breeding skills out of people by requiring them to specialize so deeply. We want them to generalize to a higher degree across the disciplines. And, from a business standpoint, its good to keep a flexible workforce. Its not all high-end, creature-heavy work all the time.

The major benefit of new and improved capabilities, such as faster rendering and improved shading, is that they enable artists to work more efficiently. We can do less set-up with these tools and still get the results on the back end, says Kidd.

Even with better tools, however, efficiency is largely a matter of focus and discipline. Like any business thats operated on the run, new technologies are not always applied in the most strategic manner, says Slevin. You have to learn to know when its good enough, and then move on.

Lawrence Huang, lighting sequence supervisor at Omation Studios.

Lawrence Huang, lighting sequence supervisor at Omation Studios.

Learning Curve

Digital production artists must keep up with continual releases of new software packages and versions. If youre still working the old way, youll tick the directors off and they wont want to work with you again, offers Kidd.

To a digital artist, the impact is sometimes quite brutal whenever off-the-shelf software turns into a brand-new version, Huang explains. Especially on the commercial side, because the turn-around deadline is very short for commercial jobs, and most commercial boutiques dont have time to train artists to get used to the new tools.

While staying on top of new developments can be a challenge, especially when deadlines are looming, it is not an insurmountable one. The people at ILM have a huge hunger for learning, insists Slevin. They hunger for the bandwidth and capacity that new versions offer them. They jump on them and devour them. Proprietary tools can take more training, but ILM tries to keep artists involved in the development of new software, to make it as user-friendly as possible. [The learning curve] can be an issue, but it cant get in the way of the work.

Off-the-shelf software in general has become more user-friendly and more widely available due to its lower cost. Its created a new breed of artist. Theres a flood of talent out there. They really have a scary skill level coming out of school. And theres a massive talent pool of what you could call hobbyists. They have a very deep skill set, developed on their own.

Of course, knowing how to use software is not the same as having graphic and art training. More and more young people joining this field dont have their basic skills locked down, Huang believes.

While learning to navigate and gaining a general knowledge of a new software package is increasingly simple, understanding sophisticated functions still takes time. The software is easier to use. The basic computer/human interface is easy to digest, says Kerlow. And people are using the higher-end packages in school, which is great. Individual artists can buy systems and have them at home or on their laptop. Anyone can download an educational copy for not a lot of money and learn it at home, school or work. But learning all the features of a sophisticated software package and understanding how to get the maximum benefit from it is difficult and time-consuming. I think the learning curve is still very steep.

To know all the software thats necessary is a mountainous task, adds Ippolito. I want to know how all the software works, but I dont need to be a master at everything.

Richard Kidd, vfx supervisor at Catalyst Media, and Colum Slevin, director of computer graphics for ILM. Kidd photo credit: Chris Ann Brunsmann.

Richard Kidd, vfx supervisor at Catalyst Media, and Colum Slevin, director of computer graphics for ILM. Kidd photo credit: Chris Ann Brunsmann.

Convergence of Gaming and Film

As more vfx specialists animators, modelers, riggers and texture/rendering artists hop between the film and gaming industries, technological and artistic trends are starting to spill over from one to the other. The gaming business has adapted many film technologies, especially those that make games look photoreal and more movie-like. Gaming is stealing people away from vfx and theyre coming closer to what we do, adds Kidd.

But in some ways, gaming technology is ahead of that used for film. Realtime technologies, from rendering to MoCap, are used frequently in gaming, and the graphic cards and high-dynamic range imaging (HDRI) used in the gaming industry have improved dramatically. In gaming, its an absolute necessity to have light rendered more dynamically in realtime, Slevin says. In our industry, these technologies are fantastic luxuries. They bring massive productivity gains, but theyre less of an absolute business necessity.

Gaming technologies are hugely important to the future of the film industry, predicts Ippolito, who notes that game companies often release a second, much-improved version of a game just a year after the original. Gaming adapts to technology a lot quicker, he says, adding, The real advantage gaming has on the movie industry is organization and asset management. We could learn from them in that respect.

Games are also starting to influence film vfx from a creative point of view. Both games and filmed entertainment are about storytelling, says Kerlow. Games brought a lot of innovative ways to gain an audience, and movies have learned from that. Games affect how we tell stories and how we relate to images. Theyve influenced a generation. Were not seeing the whole picture today.

But while games and film vfx are influencing each other, and there is more cross-over of artists between the two, Slevin cautions that the actual mediums that the two work in are still separated by a gulf. Both industries are reaching for more synergies in tools and assets, but thats another leap around the corner. Now its just a trickle back and forth.

The trickle should become larger over the next five to 10 years. That, along with the continuing impact of globalization, outsourcing and downsizing, and the effect of new technologies such as realtime rendering and performance capture, will change digital production artists role even more. And these issues are something artists need to think about now, suggest those currently working in the field.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).