Monday, October 7, 2013

Soft Skills for Digital Artists, Part 2 - Problem Solving

One of the most important intangible skills a digital artist can have is the ability to problem solve. Problem solving is so important that calling it a "soft skill" rather does it an injustice. It is an essential ingredient to a successful career. Problem-solving is the process of finding a solution. I italicized "process" because once you arrive at the best solution, you are done.  I've read it informally described as "what to do when you don't know what to do."

Problem-solving is built-in to the world of computer animation and vfx. The need for it is inescapable because of several reasons.  For one, the arena of computer graphics is always changing. The envelope is always being pushed, and artists are continuously asked to do things that have never been done before. And since these things have never been done, no one knows how to do them - they have to be figured out. This kind of problem solving - the development of new techniques, new tools - happens on a scale big to small.
Another reason is rather mundane and everyday; the computer is prone to breaking down. Anyone with a computer knows that is true. When working on a project which has alot of steps, often in various software packages which have just been upgraded and within a complex pipeline, things have lots of places where they can go amiss. I use the vague term "things" on purpose, because just about anything can get glitchy and not work as predicted. In fact things may break so often that trouble-shooting them can be a normal part of the day. While getting frustrated may also be a normal reaction, it helps immensely to roll with the punches. A coworker who constantly complains about having to deal with the inevitable problems can be a bit of a PITA to others around them, and doesn't help get things done which makes bosses grumpy too, none of which is good for job health. Imagine how much bosses like the person who has solutions instead! In my opinion it is alot easier to not get frustrated if you realize that problems are part of the process and you are expecting them.

In the workplace, those who can problem solve have a greater likelihood of going on to leadership positions. Those who cannot or do not chose to problem solve tend to stay in worker bee positions - someone else figures it out, and they are told what to do; the solution is provided to them and they carry it out.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Soft Skills for Digital Artists - Part 1

Last quarter SCAD-Atlanta hosted the inaugural ATV-Fest, a "festival of broadcast". I attended several panels, and to my surprise I found that my favorite was a panel about reality television, one I had not expected to have much to relate to. I admit to being a big fan of Duck Dynasty - that show is really funny - and watching my share of Pawn Stars, but the topic was far removed from the field I have experience in, or so I thought. So I didn't expect to relate to much of it. Turned out I was wrong. Not only were the panelists funny, and seemed to have a friendly rapport with each other (most of them had worked together) which spread to the audience, but it was clear under all the humor they really knew their stuff. They knew their business and they knew what it took to succeed in it - they had been around long enough to learn this well and to watch others not learn it and therefor not do as well. It was clear too they kept in mind they were talking to students wanting to get in. They told them what it took to succeed - and they talked about soft skills, though they never called them that.

Soft skills are the intangibles which make you successful at your job. This is what I learned first hand as a technical director. Things like work ethic, communication skills, and the like. I've found in the past few years of being a professor that soft skills ("the intangibles" as I like to call them) are the hardest thing to teach - and yet I believe they are the real determining factor in success. Lots of people can learn software or certain techniques. What separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, are the intangibles. And hearing the reality TV panelists talk about them I heard a lot of really great advice. For example, they talked about going the extra mile - because if you aren't willing to do it, the person next to you is - and they are the one who will get the job or the call back for the next job.

There are a bunch of soft skills that are absolutely essential to thriving as a CG artist, and that is why this blog entry is "Part 1". At the risk of sounding preachy (which is why I haven't blogged on them before), I thought to write about some, mostly because i think they are so very important but not ever really taught. You just have to pick them up when you are out there and hopefully you bring enough of them to the table so you don't get eliminated before you can glean the rest.

One soft skill, which seems as good of a place to start as any, is going the extra mile. Basically "If you put in the minimum, you will get out the minimum." Just fulfilling the job requirement is not enough. Seeing how little you can do and get away with it will get you fired. If you get let go because you did the minimum they may never tell you why. It just means come time for layoff, you go and the guy next to you stays. And then when it comes time to ramp up again, your phone does not ring. Perhaps it was those long lunches... during crunch time. Doing the minimum will definitely NOT get you promoted. To get recognized you usually need to do more than the next guy. And that can be very hard to do the higher you rise in the ranks, because then you are surrounded by people who all are willing to go the extra mile. Standing out in a bunch of hard-working, talented people can be difficult. I wish I could say "Do the maximum, and you will get out the maximum" but that isn't always true. Sometimes doing the maximum just keeps you in the game. But you can be sure doing the minimum won't, so one of the many essential ingredients for success is truly giving it your best. Because if you don't the other guy will, and you will for sure get beat out. So it helps to love what you do, because you are going to be spending alot of hours doing it. If you love doing it, then going the extra mile is something you want to do. And that is another essential ingredient  - passion for what you do ("ganas" or desire - the fire in the belly), but that is a topic for another day.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Hobbit - too much of a good thing?

Not long ago I went and saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with my husband. I'm a big fan of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and a big fan in general of the work that comes out of Weta Digital. But I have to say that I wasn't as impressed by the effects in The Hobbit as I have been by other work by them, I'm sorry to say. I feel a bit uncharitable, because visual effects have come so far in the past decade that many of us have become rather picky. But vague feeling of guilt aside, the truth is early into the film one of the first effects was a matte painting which I noticed sliding because the perspective shift was a little bit off. A beautiful matte painting to be sure though. I'm not an animator, but I noticed that the flesh wasn't jiggly enough on many of the creatures - the Goblin King's chin a big exception of course.
But my biggest objection at times was to the lighting. We just saw too damn much. It was as as if every nook and cranny had to be lit - as if someone couldn't resist showing off all of that hard work, even when the story didn't call for it. I like a little mystery myself, even if the subject is beautiful. Leave a little something for the imagination. I don't have to, or even want to, see every lavish detail so much of the time. It's distracting.

A gorgeous image but personally details, details everywhere mean that my eye keeps getting pulled away to look at the environment rather than the characters.

Two scenes in particular come to mind, in which I truly feel that too much light impinged upon and lessened the story, and they are two story points when Bilbo should have been hidden much more than he was. ** SPOILER ALERT** The first one was where he was attempting to steal from the three ogres. Because he was fully lit at almost every moment, the impression is that he was crawling around in plain view, and of course the ogres would see him. All that light from just a fire, too - it didn't make sense and it didn't seem to fit with the story. Putting him in shadows and making him harder for the audience to see would have done wonders for this story point.
The other instance was similar, which was in the goblin caves. Bilbo was to have been dropped by accident and in the mad stampede been overlooked by the goblin horde, and thus escape. However, the cinematography killed this sequence for me. He was under full lighting at every moment, and the camera even kept him well framed front and center most of the time - not falling off to the side, not behind items, not in any sort of shadow. Probably because lighting is my "thing" I thought - please, hide that poor hobbit so we, as the audience, can feel that he could be lost and overlooked. I felt a wee bit as if the cinematographer didn't trust I'd spot him unless he kept him under my nose all of the time, even when the story didn't call for it.
In general the goblin caves were over-lit for my taste. They are caverns. With goblins. Yet few areas were allowed to really fall into complete shadow very often. The environment was wonderfully crafted - and yet I wanted to see less of it. A bit like the monster movies where we see the monster too often, rather than the suggestion of the monster.
This goblin cavern was very well lit - we generally saw all of it.

Yes, this image and environment is interesting and magnificently crafted. But is it really necessary to see every stick?  I was looking at the environment first and noticed our band of travelers second... yet I cannot help but feel it would be better the other way around.

Maybe I'm just more of a minimalist. This past week I screened the documentary on cinematography Visions of Light. And really, screening the documentary prompted me to go ahead and write my thoughts on the blog. In so many ways traditional cinematography is ahead of the work we do as digital artists, even in visual effects films. Not all the work, to be fair, but as a whole I think creating the 3D world has so many other concerns it is also dealing with that keeping it all in perspective can be harder. Sometimes we just want to "show off our stuff" or perhaps other times we are so focused on technique that we lose sight of the story being told. A bit like the CG camera that can zoom around everywhere. Just because it can, doesn't mean it should. And of course, I've always been a fan of what film noir taught us - that what you do not see is as important as what you do see.

Less is more in this scene from Blade Runner (1982)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Hitchock was the master of suspense and mystery.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Visit from Pixar Director of Photography, Erik Smitt

Doing a bit of blog catch-up...
Back in October, Erik Smitt, a long-time employee of Pixar Studios, visited us here at SCAD-Atlanta. Erik is currently the Director of Photography on the upcoming Pixar animation "The Good Dinosaur," to be released in 2014. Erik visited classrooms and held a workshop and portfolio review, giving feedback to students on their work and answering questions. He also gave a presentation on digital lighting, and here a few highlights.
Erik's presentation revolved around the central idea that the primary purpose of lighting is to further the story. It was not unlike the presentation given by Kim White. Not surprising, as Kim is also a DP at Pixar. (Kim visited SCAD-Atlanta at the end of the year last year.) It’s clear that at Pixar the importance of the story, and how each element contributes and furthers the story,  is kept at the front of each person’s mind, all the way along the animation production pipeline, and lighting is no exception to that rule. This topic is my favorite. It is to me what is the most exciting and creative part of lighting, and I likely can never hear enough about it.
Erik began with a look at some moments in traditional cinematography, using films such as Revolutionary Road, and The Green Mile as example. He used the film There Will Be Blood to illustrate how some of the rules we hear can be broken (such as ‘don’t shoot at high noon; don’t put the focus in the dead center’) – if it is right for the moment. If you can use an uncomfortable or harsh feeling, then break those rules.

There Will Be Blood (2007). The coerced baptism and humiliation of Plainview as he is forced to admit publicly his sins. A blindingly white cross dominates the frame, centrally located and positioned to literally rest upon the head of the kneeling Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Louis). Never mind avoiding those tangents!
Erik discussed the use of color in Pixar films as symbolic of certain people, situations, or moods. For example in Up the color pink is associated with Ellie. Frequently it is seen in combination with her. After her death, Carl returns from the hospital at sunset. Slowly and imperceptibly,  the last bit of pink fades from the light as the sun dips below the horizon. Get your tissues ready and see this clip - watch through to the end to see the scene mentioned, paying careful attention to the use of pink throughout – the intensity of it, the amount of it … :

Erik also analyzed several scenes from Toy Story 3. A great article about the use and symbolism of color and light in this film is found here:

Another use of light is to help direct the eye. Ask yourself - what do you want to look at, first, second, third? Everything has a place and it is all thought out. In this regards often the background needs to be visually simplified or minimized so that the viewer can focus on the main character(s). This can be done with simply less light back there, or with atmospheric perspective, among other means. Unfortunately I do not have the great before-and-after images shown at the presentation. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Another point made was that you do not need to show everything all of the time. Perhaps you hide something the audience wants to see, then reveal it later, creating tension.

A few highlights from the Question and Answer  portion:
Q - What helps to develop your skill lighting?
A – Painting and photography. Painting helps to develop your eye.
His advice – “Paint as much as you can, photograph as much as you can.”

Q- What does Pixar look for in a lighting portfolio?
A – Strong visual skills. Show a good understanding of light, form, and color. Use color and light to make something visually appealing. Pixar in particular looks for examples of character lighting. Include an animated shot with the character looking appealing.

Favorite quotes from the presentation  –
“We (lighters) give the audience something to feel rather than something to listen to.”
 “When you are painting, you are really painting the light.”

All in all an interesting and informative presentation. And very nice of Erik to take the time to come by our campus. Much appreciated!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

SIGGRAPH 2012, first courses

I'm here attending SIGGRAPH 2012 with a full conference pass and as usual, there is more to do and see than I can possible fit in each day. I need to make a few clones of myself. I'm a bit behind on a daily report of sights and events but here goes.
The conference kicked off on Sunday for those who were attending courses. I attended a course "Matte Painting Through the Ages." The presenter was Craig Barron, the author of  The Invisible Art. The Invisible Art is a large, beautiful book about matte painting originally published in 2002. (I'd recommend it to everyone but for its shocking sticker price of $500. Yes I didn't misplace a 0, that's $500 for a new one, though you can find a used one for around $150). The course covered quite alot but here are some of the highlights which stuck out to me.
One of the largest thoughts I took away was how much matte painting has been changing over the years, until it has transformed into very little painting in the traditional sense at all. "Painted" today doesn't mean what "painted" used to to the matte painter of yester-year. Clearly artists today use the computer, but they do not use paint programs but rather edit and manipulate photographs - combining them, color correcting them, doing some paint over maybe but not illustrating from scratch. An illustration from scratch just doesn't have the level of realism required by today's audiences. Go Photoshop.
Even more, however, while in the early years, matte painting was literally large paintings placed behind the actors to extend the set or make them look like they were in another environment, today most set extension is done with digital sets. As the speaker traversed the years, as he came to modern times he spoke of digital set extension, of modeling (in 3D) environments and rendering them with global illumination or "baking in" the look of global illumination. ("Baking in" means painting those lighting effects directly into the textures themselves.) The speaker felt that the future of matte painting was to create 3D environments with computer graphics. At the present time, he added, the budget isn't there so sometimes they are 3D environments, other times painted. When I think about this, however, I have to think about how the artists who make full CG 3D set extensions and backgrounds are modelers, texture painters, shading artists, and lighters. So to the extend that the background is a fully realized 3D set and not a flat image, the matte painter is out of a job really. But those working in the industry know this, which is why fewer traditional matte painters (if any) are needed on most shows.
What is around and what will no doubt stay around is a hybrid approach in which a "painted" image (an image crafted primarily from photo-manipulation) is projected onto simplified geometry in a 3D scene. The advantage of this is that the camera can move and the various background elements will have parallax. You'd be surprised just how far you can take this too, before things start to fall apart and the illusion is revealed. This approach isn't new - ILM was doing this back in The Phantom Menace (1999).

A surprising discovery for me however was just how related matte painting is to lighting. Of course, when pointed out it seems rather obvious but not being a matte painter myself, I always thought their concerns rather different from mine, but it turns out there is much in common. The speaker often pointed out how the matte painter was concerned with how light moved in the image - the time of day, the angle of the light. Other concerns were related to lighting - the mood created, and most importantly, how the image helped to tell the story (it is all about the story isn't it). Similar to the digital lighter, the matte painter has to understand how things look in the real world, such as how atmospheric haze affects the appearance of things. Also the recommendations Craig Barron made to aspiring matte painters are exactly the same ones I would make to aspiring digital lighters:
Study traditional paintings, such as painters from the Renaissance and the Impressionist movement. Study nature; we are behind monitors too much - get outside more. Develop traditional art skills like painting and drawing (even if you don't have to paint or draw that much). Make sure you understand color, color theory, and composition.

My two favorite quotes from the lecture:
"Our job is to help the director tell the story. We are not there to attract attention to the visual effect."
"It is imperative to get on location and to get away from the computer."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Thoughts on Industry Trends in Digital Lighting

While writing Illuminated Pixels, I interviewed friends/associates  who worked on many different kinds of projects to find out what techniques the studios are currently employing, and with what frequency. It was interesting to me to find that today's digital lighters have more options in technique than ever before.

I had originally thought that many of the old tricks weren't really used much anymore, if even at all. For example, at Sony Imageworks, where I previously worked, they have completely left behind many methods which used to be standard, and entirely embraced newer methods. More specifically, they are now render with a dedicated ray-tracer which does ray-traced global illumination, and do not use things like scanline rendering, depth-mapped shadows, or cheated reflections at all. With a dedicated ray-tracer, that would be silly - they use ray-traced shadows and ray-traced reflections. I wondered if this was common for most of the studios.

As a general trend, the move has been towards greater realism in lighting and shading. However, I was surprised to find that some cheats which I thought perhaps were obsolete were alive and well, such as using reflection cameras to cheat a planar reflection (refer to the book if this technique isn't familiar). It really just depended on the studio. It depends on the level of realism they want, the amount of creative control they want, the amount of time they are able to dedicate towards rendering, and the abilities of the artists they hire, etc.

So today, depending on the project and the studio, digital lighters may employ both newer techniques and older techniques. To me, this is both fun and exciting. It also is why it is good to know a variety of techniques, and furthermore to know the pros and cons of them, so you can best decide which one to use on a particular project (if you are doing the deciding) or at the least be experienced and competent in a variety of approaches, which will employers will appreciate.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"Houston... the Eagle has landed!"
~ Neil Armstrong, Astronaut

It's official - the book is complete and has been sent to the printers. It should take approximately a month to print and distribute, which means that it *should* be available in time for this year's Siggraph.
Here is the cover (front, back, and spine):

I am currently putting together a companion website:
My plan for this website is to have it continuously evolve. To start with it will have sample scene files, a forum, links to other interesting and related sites as well as links to contributor websites, and a link to this blog. I am not a tweeter so don't expect one of those, ever. ;-)
I hope people feel free to contribute thoughts/suggestions about the book as well as add their own digital lighting tips and tricks, and examples of their work.

At the present time I am also planning a book launch / book signing. I'd like something fun and celebratory rather than too self congratulatory. This particular project has been a long time coming and its "birth" deserves a party!
~ Virginia