Amidst a light falling snow, Europe's premier VFX and Animation festival, FMX started today.
The first day was heavy on VR content but also featured great talks, technical workshops and an ILM's tour de force on the latest Star Wars film. It is impossible to see all of the talks with some six tracks running concurrently. While the FMX conference is aimed at providing education and insight to younger artists and graduates, it is built on an incredible roster of extremely senior professionals (which makes just having coffee in the luxurious Speakers lounge on level 4, one of the most interesting things at the show). Given the need to pick from a wealth of talks, this FMX report will be a very personal view of the conference.
I attended FMX with two principle goals - I knew I could not do everything, so I am focused Rendering and Facial performance, picking your battles is key to tradeshow sanity. I decided to not focus on VR this year - partly to swim against the current and partly due to having done so much in VR lately.
We also wanted to get up speed on what recruiters were interested in at the moment, as FMX is very much a conference aimed at students. Given its tremendous standing in Europe, FMX is a great place to take the temperature of the industry via the rows of recruiters lined up with branded bling giveaways and the shining hope of employment (see Jobs section below).
While Arnold and V-Ray have news that I was keen to catch up on, I have to say I ended up spending much more time than I expected with the crew from Isotropix. Clarisse Version 3 is about to be released, and since I last spent serious time with the product it has grown in features and users.
Both Double Negative and ILM were giving talks on their use of Clarisse. Unlike many renderers which do produce great final frames, Clarisse functions as both a traditional renderer, and as Middleware : Lookdev. In comparison, you would need to compare its use against a top renderer running with say Katana. Not to take anything away from the extremely powerful combination of multiple products but Clarisse is more than just a renderer. In use at Double Negative, the feature team use Clarisse as used as part of the pipeline in LookDev for shots that will be final rendered in Clarisse or something else like RenderMan or a similar renderer.
Some of DNeg's office almost entirely use Clarisse right through final deliverable. DNeg's Vancouver offices, for example, almost completely rely on Clarisse (with some mantra for FX animation) for all the shows they are working on. According to Graham Jack their CTO:
- Total number of frames rendered in Clarisse in 2015: 7,831,908
- Total number of projects with renders from Clarisse in 2015: 47 (22 Feature films, 12 TV Shows, 13 Tests, pitches etc.)
- Total number of shots which used Clarisse in 2015: 3019
- Total number of users who rendered with clarisse in 2015: 420
These projects includes Mockingjay Part 2, Mission Impossible 5, Insurgent, Spectre, Alice through the looking glass, Geostorm, Hunstman and more.
While the television team at Double Negative always use it for Lookdev and final rendering. Double Negative on the recent Agent Carter TV show rendered the show's 'black hole' type Dark Matter element not in the special Double Negative Gravitational Renderer (DNGR) that they wrote for Interstellar, but in Clarisse. The TV team mimicking the DNGR look, and felt they could be more flexible in Clarisse for the VFX supervisors input. Double Negative has its own shaders so they can move files easily in and out of Clarisse and render in it or in a host of other renderers. Interestingly, the Double Negative shaders are the inspiration for the new Clarisse Version 3 Physically Based shader system that will be new in the next version. While there is no published date yet on the version3 release it will be well before Siggraph and more information will start rolling out on about that release in the next two weeks.
ILM adopted Clarisse for Environment work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Susumu Yukuhiro from ILM gave a brilliant talk about how the Environment team used Clarisse to produce many of the wonderful environments in The Force Awakens. For example, when the Millennium Falcon escapes at the beginning of the film through the Imperial battleship graveyard, everything except the Falcon was final rendered in Clarisse with the Falcon separately rendered and then comped in Nuke. The decision to go this route was based on a combination of factors. Clarisse blurs the line between Lookdev test and final render. There is no need to hand off the files to have them finally rendered elsewhere. Clarisse is just one flowing system with great Instancing and an easy to use UI. As it happened, the ship graveyard escape sequence was one of the few areas that the later 2 hour main Star Wars panel did not get to cover in their main session that closed out Day 1 (more on that below).
I commented above I was interested in facial animation, fxguide just published a story on Quantum Break. Antti Herva, lead character technical artist was one of two speakers at the D14D workshop. Remedy Entertainment partnered with Dimensional Imaging early on for facial animation since Heva was concerned about the quality and turnaround time of the FACS rigs and decided to explore a surface capture pipeline instead for Quantum Break. His talk was a rich discussion of the myriad of decisions a lead artist or director needs to make a complex game title.
The other half of the D14D workshop was on the great work by Blur Studio on Uibsoft's Agent Six (Rainbow Six: Siege) and the virtual version of Angela Bassett. Blur's Kevin Margo discussed the pipeline in detail highlighting the agile nature of the DI4D approach and the challenges they overcame.
In both cases this workshop was wonderfully detailed and extremely specific in its discussion of the technology and the issues the teams faced. It is possible for some of the bigger panels to speak in generalities. While this workshop was small and in one of the backroom's of the FMX - it was one of the richest and most detailed discussion I heard all day. It is such a joy to have such serious and valuable real world projects broken down by people who really know their material and can address the subtle nuanced points that often get skipped over in the larger panel talks in the main halls. FMX is to be praised for hosting these types of specialist workshops.
We will feature an in depth look at surface capture facial pipelines here at fxguide, post FMX.
ILM: Force Awakens
Patrick Tubach, VFX Supervisor, Paul Kavanagh, Animation Supervisor, Mike Mulholland, Visual Effects Supervisor and Kevin Jenkins, Art Director, Industrial Light & Magic
On day one at FMX, the session with the longest queues and greatest demand was the ILM Force Awakens session. People lined up for an hour to hear and see an incredible array of stories, test renders and approaches - all aiming capturing the essence of the first trilogy in the new Star Wars films. While ILM's work is incredibly impressive, it was nice to hear a lot about the original ILMers creative decisions and how today's film makers so respected what the original team had done. The incredible design and commitment to quality of the original trilogy is at the heart of why Star Wars is just so iconic and beloved.
The panel discussed the film from their personal points of view, avoiding both a shot by shot discussion or just chronological approach. The panel ran very long, but this allowed the team to really expand on early concept art, character studies and often times very funny test renders. As Fxguide has covered the film already - here are a few fun (new) facts that the team brought up, that I certainly did not know.
- The Rathtars that attack Han and the team used a new tentacle system. Originally it was going to rely on the Davy Jones tentacle system, but Paul Kavanagh visited their 'sister' company Pixar who had just developed a new tentacle system (possibly for Finding Dory). He was so impressed with the controls and UI that he came back to ILM and tasked their development team to completely re build ILM's tentacle animation system to be similar. The result looks approximately like a 3D version of a Spline editor that did seem to be very easy to use and intuitive from the clip that Paul showed the crowd. The Rathtars were inspired by a minor piece of unused concept artwork from the original trilogy.
- Snoke: Actor Andy Serkis, who played Snoke in The Force Awakens taped the right side of his mouth closed with surgical tape so his speech and lip sync would be more accurate to the old and battle scarred Snoke. In the PR shots on line he is not wearing the tape but he did in the actual dialogue scenes. Also the room where Snoke is first viewed has a bunch of empty tables in it. The reason is that JJ wanted it to be like "they just found an empty conference room and used that - like someone looked up in Outlook Calendar and said 'Yeah you can use that room for talking to the Supreme Leader!"
- In admiring the brilliant original work of the first trilogy Paul Kavanagh joked "it is almost such a shame computer graphics were invented" - this from the Animation Supervisor(!). Paul went on to show how he explored the incredibly simple concept sketches of BB8 with some very simple previz. JJ liked the first tests so much that aspects survived to the final. If you look at BB8's two antennas in the final film, only one of them has secondary motion and moves - the other is rigid. This is because in the first ever animation test render - (which is just BB8 moving and stopping on very crude sand )- Paul only animated one antenna.
- Maz went through various design approaches, in the UK ILM office. In the end, a strong influence on the look of this 1000 year old alien was Amelia Earhart (American aviation pioneer) - this is seen in her cloths and her goggle style glasses. Also when Lupita Nyong'o is covered in tracking dots for on set facial capture she seems to have teeth tracking dots on her upper teeth. ILM used Disney's Medusa rig for topology capture, commenting how great the scans were but in particular, how well the data provided temporally consistent showing skin sliding over muscle etc and was not just a set of unconnected point cloud mesh solves.
- ILM engineered a new destruction pipeline that is called Point Based Dynamics or PBDyn, engineered by Rick Hankins, effects TD and R&D engineer . The system works on points and constraints. The constraints might include friction, attraction, and repulsion - all with different strengths. The system allows for rocks to shatter but also break into dust and particles. The system was used extensively on the end planet destruction, both in the forest and in the planet wide space shots. A simulation might start with a big chunk of rock or a vast ground plane - on the artist screen this is represented as a ground plane populated with connected tiny balls. Voronoi partitioning breaks the plane into rocks and then these can crumble to the smaller particles in organic ways for the dust and debris.
Amongst the companies I spoke with were, ILM, MPC, Method, Double Negative, Animal Logic, Crytek, Framestore, The Mill, Image Engine and many more.
This is what I learnt: (or Top 10 Job Lessons from the world's best VFX recruiters at FMX)
- Almost everyone when pushed, admits that they will watch your showreel with the sound off. So unless you are doing lip sync - don't spend a lot of time on the soundtrack, and don't do an ultra cool montage (unless you want a job as an editor).
- The recruiters are split on breakdowns, I would say slightly over half of the recruiters like them but they need to be short and you should use them to highlight what you did, don't waste hours on complex animated breakdowns.. wipes are fine.
- You do not need an appointment to talk, just rock up and say Hi. If you are serious, the bigger companies would like you to be in their databases but it is not mandatory (Method doesn't even run a strict recruiting database - but most do).
- 1.5 to 2 minutes is ideal for a reel but some commented that the first 10 -15 second of your reel is a good indicator . Especially for TVC work - all your presentation counts. The title graphics, the font etc they are all quality clues
- If you want to work in a small company or on TVCs then being a generalist is good. For the big companies be specific - play to your strength but also to the work that your target company does. For example, MPC said if you offer cartoon/stylised animation as your first clip - you are either unaware of the sort of work MPC does, or not right for them anyway - either way it is a very poor opener.
- Stay in touch. These people want to talk to you. Even if you won't become free for 6 months - drop by - say Hi - let them know what you are doing.
- These guys move fast, one company said that if they saw a good reel today (Tuesday) - they would have it reviewed overnight in Canada and second interviews and visa would be discussed the next day - and you could be successfully over before FMX finished. These guys place a lot of people. DNeg would place around 140 in their London office alone of the next 12 months, - Method could to hire 150 - 200 in the next year.
- Popular jobs at the moment that are in demand include FX animation (Houdini style work so flames - smoke - destruction - etc), Also Pipeline specialists, Riggers and TDs. The entry level jobs for 2D are still paint and roto, but also what used to be the tape room - now called Tech ops / MCR or Data Labs.
- Producers are coming increasingly from management graduates - people with formal education in scheduling and planning, and this is the main job dominated by women. There is no glass ceiling on Women Producers.
- While London is an expensive place to work - Vancouver is catching, and Sydney isn't far behind. London lost a lot of people to Vancouver so more London jobs are being filled from European Film School types - hence FMX is an excellent show for recruiters.
There is one other advantage of shows like FMX, the heavy weight Supervisors are in town to do talks so you can get great help from a recruiter and first hand insights from one of the many senior staff who rotate through for brief periods on the stand. This is great but it underlines - do your homework.. you don't want to be standing on a booth discussing a job not knowing the work the company has recently done - especially if the guy next to you just got an Oscar nomination for it.
My principle advice is that the Recruiters are not gatekeepers tasked with keeping you away from a rewarding life in vfx ! They want to talk, they want to give you advice, - they are happy to get your reel now and again in 6 months if you have a new version.. it is their job. Respect their requirements on showreels but use them - approach them - everyone we spoke to today was upbeat and keen to find great people. They want to help you, embrace the process and be open - it is one of the greatest tools for furthering your career.
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