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.