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A Non-Linear Career

COW Library : Adobe After Effects Techniques : Tony Hudson : A Non-Linear Career
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From The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents - A Non-linear career


Tony HudsonTony Hudson
Petaluma, California USA

©2009 Tony Hudson and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


Article Focus:

An FX veteran's unexpected, non-linear career path, from puppetry to painting, to ILM and beyond, offers insights into the art and business of film creativity - and a killer reel.


Tony Hudson 2009 Demo Reel





We came across Tony last year, when he first began to use Final Cut Pro to assemble VFX shots in some of his latest productions. He started looking for advice in the COW forums, and joined Creative COW's LinkedIn.com group.

We later got an idea of the incredible range of his work when he posted his reel at reels.creativecow. net. He was happy to add some details about it when asked in the comments section of his page, but when we asked him to go even deeper for this article, he was a little more reluctant. Both on his reel page and in our conversation, he was quick to point out his role within teams, and told us that he had no interest in writing anything that sounded like a self-promotion piece.

As he told us how he found these jobs and developed his career, we were also struck by the turns his career took as he followed the film industry into the overwhelming conversion to digital visual storytelling. Tony shares his eyewitness account through the lens of his work, and exemplifies how artists can prepare themselves for the unexpected turns that the industry, and life, might take.

- Creative COW



The summer before I started college, I began working at a local film company in Atlanta called "Oglesby and Hardin." I painted animation cels and conformed negative - an amazing opportunity to get right out of high school.

My next job was for "John Hardman Productions," a puppet theater company doing shows at all of the Six Flags theme parks. This was a fulfillment of a dream of mine from when I was very young, and saw the Krofft Marionettes in the very same theater. The show was gigantic, with over 300 puppets in a 20-minute show, performed eight times per day. These puppets were big and heavy - the average marionette was 3 feet tall and was strung to a height of 12 feet. I was in much better physical shape in those days!

I did that for a year, then worked at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, with the touring companies of "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Pinnochio." The routine was to drive 100 miles or so to some town, set up the stage, do two or three shows, pack up and drive another 100 miles or so - all for the amazingly high pay of $120 per week!

When I was 19, I told my parents that I was moving to California, to go to art school in San Francisco - but my secret plan all along was to work for George Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic. I relocated to Marin County California, hoping that proximity, if nothing else, would get me my dream job at ILM.

Amazingly, this plan worked, but not from any great talent on my part. I was living in a house that rented rooms, and a guy named Escott Norton moved in for the summer. It turned out that he had come up from Los Angeles to work at ILM on the second Ewoks movie ("The Battle for Endor"), and just happened to be working in the Creature Shop - the very place I hoped to land. When he left to go back to L.A., he recommended me as his replacement.

Getting the job was in retrospect very easy. I just had to wait around Marin County for eight months until it fell into my lap. Keeping it was a different matter. Showing adaptability and initiative, I quickly outgrew going on beer runs, and was transferred into the Mold Room to work with Sean Casey making molds and castings for "Howard the Duck."

I spent the next 17 years working my way through various roles at ILM: puppeteering on "Young Sherlock Holmes" and "Witches of Eastwick;" building what I called "maximatures" (the inverse of miniatures) for the movie "Innerspace;" and being one of the principals for creating and operating the four foot long remote-controlled free-swimming whales for "Star Trek: The Voyage Home." Later, I was a modeler for the new Enterprise in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" TV series.

During the recession of 1990-92, there was very little film production happening, so I spent a few years at Walt Disney Imagineering, where I worked on ride development for Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.

After working in "traditional" visual effects for nine years, I migrated with most of the rest of the industry over to working in Computer Graphics. I am self taught for CG, learning the craft initially on an Amiga 5000 with Lightwave. I used my new talents working for a while for Ron Thornton at Foundation imaging until I created enough work to have a Demo Reel, at which point I was hired again by ILM to work on "Dragonheart" as a modeler. I eventually rose through the ranks to become a Model Supervisor, beginning with "Mars Attacks."

I really miss those days of doing real FX with my hands, though. "Innerspace" was the most fun of them all, making giant fields of fat cells out of lemon jello, and chopping up scallions to serve as lung alveoli. I also think that "behind the scenes" photographs of people making real-world miniatures is much more exciting than photos of people looking at CG on a monitor!

Innerspace
Innerspace ©1997, Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures

Above, from "Innerspace." These are actually scallions stuck into clay, of which I then made a latex casting of. Below, from "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:" four foot long, free-swimming radio-controlled whales. I worked on creating these for about nine months, and served as their puppeteer during the 2 week shoot. The title graphic for this article features a concept painting, "Crystal Cave," created for an un-produced virtual world.

©1986 Star Trek PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. STAR TREK and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Star Trek IV


THE REEL

I have always used my demo reels as an entertainment piece in itself, as opposed to just a collection of clips strung together with electronic music. Perhaps it is my latent insecurity that my work would not stand on its own, but I want my reel to be as interesting at least as a music video. I have always enjoyed editing, especially to music. Normally, if I am cutting something, I will put a music track to it, even if the final product will not have music, as I like to work within a rhythm.

I also like to have something new and fresh in my reel, so I create a little intro sequence. With this reel, I really wanted to get some of my non-CG work from the 1980s into it, so I structured the intro around them floating in a time/space void. Plus, it was a great opportunity to try out the latest version of Trapcode Particular.

Special Effects 1 Special Effects 2 Special Effects 3 Special Effects 4


Artificial Intelligence: A.I.
Artificial Intelligence: A.I., ©2001 Warner Bros. Pictures


ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: AI

When pre-production began on AI in 2000, I was one of the first at ILM to begin work on it, and was in charge of creation and animation setup of all Character and Hard Surface elements.

I first was working with Dennis Muren on using the then-new technique of image-based modeling. We wanted to see if we could save some time and effort by photographing the New York miniatures used for "Baby's Day Out" and creating CG models from them. That did not work out the way we hoped, but it was an interesting experience.

I then spent a great deal of time working out the design of the "Specialist" Robots featured at the end of the film. The UK-based artist Chris "Fangorn" Baker had developed the Specialist as pen and ink concepts when he was working with director Stanley Kubrick in the years before Kubrick passed away, but there was a lot of work to be done to finish the design. I was tasked with figuring out how to represent the volumetric interior of the Robot, as if you could see through the skin to the circuits and wires inside.

After that, I supervised all of the modeling for the film, including Rouge City, New York underwater and in ice, "Teddy," "Dr. Know," and the Blue Fairy. I also designed what was called the "Cube Ship," the little vehicle the Specialists travel in. It had to disassemble itself in an interesting way, but make sense as a whole as well. I had fun working on that film.


Men In Black
Men In Black, ©1997 Columbia Pictures


MEN IN BLACK

I designed, match-moved, modeled and animated the Jeebs transformation effect. This is my favorite shot ever, and the shot I have gotten the most attention for. (Perhaps there is a connection there.)

I had just finished my work on "Mars Attacks" in the fall of 1996 when I was asked to create this effect. I had the pleasure of coming up with the technique and animating it all myself, using Softimage and ILM's Caricature software. Basically, it was a series of blend shapes atop an animated rig, with the final blend sculpted to match the first frame of Tony Shalhoub's action. It was originally to be a very short transition from CG to Tony Shalhoub, but the director, Barry Sonnenfeld, enjoyed it so much that he kept lengthening the shot.

Five years later, I was asked by Sonnenfeld to make a special guest appearance (I was working on "Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets" at the time) and re-create Jeebs for the second film.


Mars Attacks
Mars Attacks, ©1997 Warner Bros. Pictures


MARS ATTACKS

I supervised all Character and Hard Surface modeling; designed, built and animated the "Martian Thing-Maker;" and animated the head-popping shot

This was my first big CG show. I created the Martian model based on sculptures created by, I believe, the Chiodo brothers, back when it was to be a stop-motion film. This was also the first film ILM did that featured cloth to any extent. We did not have a cloth sim system at the time, so I spent most of the second half of the show hand-animating cloth using blend shapes in Caricature.


Harry Potter
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ©2002 Warner Bros. Entertainment


HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

This was my last film for ILM. I was very aware at the time of the coming CG challenge from Weta Digital with Gollum, so we worked very hard to make Dobby as realistic as possible. He was the first ILM character to use sub-surface scattering. Frank Gravatt did a fantastic job on the modelling. I served as Digital Character Supervisor, and was in charge of creation and animation setup of all Character and Hard Surface elements for Dobby the house elf, and the Quidditch match.

For the Quidditch sequence, I had a brainstorm that saved us much cloth simulation time. I created a cloth sim of a cape blowing in a breeze, made the sequence into a loop, and then baked the sim into blend shapes. Cary Phillips wrote this incredibly complicated expression that would loop the shapes and animate the strength of the wind. We then created a rig that would allow us to swing the cape around behind the Quidditch player, and we were able to do all of the wide shots without any subsequent sim work.


MAGNOLIA

As Digital Character Supervisor, I was in charge of the creation of frogs.

"Magnolia" was the best movie I ever worked on. At the time I did not know that this would be the case, as I was not familiar with director Paul Thomas Anderson or "Boogie Nights," and I could not figure out why we were dropping frogs from the sky. This was actually quite common. We often worked on specific shots in films, and did not know WHY we were doing the work.


My Peoples
From "My Peoples."
©2003 by Disney Feature Animation



MY PEOPLES

I left ILM in 2002 to go to Florida and help convert Disney Animation/Florida to CG production. They were finishing "Brother Bear" while I was there, and it was wonderful to see all of the hand-animated work in production.

"My Peoples" was to be a combination of hand-drawn 2D animation for the "human" characters, and CG for the magical come-to-life folk art characters. As Digital Character Supervisor, I was in charge of creation and animation setup of all Character and Hard Surface elements for this uncompleted Disney Animated feature. I also provided concept design for characters. I had a very small but talented crew, and together with Tony Plett doing backend supervision, we put together a pipeline to handle the CG production.

Unfortunately, Disney under Michael Eisner was in turmoil at the time. After a few starts and stops on "My Peoples," they closed the Florida studio, and I went to Burbank to work on "Rapunzel Unbraided" with Glen Keane. Working with Glen Keane I consider to be the renaissance of my career. Glen was so very good at bringing out the best in people and encouraging artistic perfection and, more importantly, artistic confidence. Glen taught me how to trust my artistic instinct. I was no longer in a strictly technical role, but was a part of the Story Department. I worked alongside the story artists, creating 3D animatics for sequences that were difficult to visualize as traditional 2D story reels.

For those who may not be familiar with animation production, the first phase of creating an animated feature is the "Story Reel," which consists of 2D storyboards edited together with temporary dialog tracks. The Story Reel serves as the "bones" of the film during production. I then used drawings on cards in a 3D space with animated camera to describe complex action sequences.

It was heartbreaking when "Rapunzel Unbraided" was shut down in the fall of 2005 and I had to go back to working in the real world, but I will always remember that time with fondness, and remember the lessons Glen taught me. (Note: Disney's current "Rapunzel" is a completely different project.)


The Singularity Is Near.
©Ray Kurzweil & Terasem Motion Infocuture Presentations
Ramona, "The Singularity is Near."



THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR, A TRUE STORY ABOUT THE FUTURE

Based on Ray Kurzweil's New York Times bestselling book, this is a documentary scheduled for release in late 2009. It is a documentary with a storyline woven through it, similar to "What the BLEEP Do We Know?"

I was the on-set Visual Effects Supervisor, the Effects Art Director, and Supervised the completion of over 400 greenscreen, set extension and matte painting shots in 8 months. The elephant animation is by Miguel Fuertes.

When I say "Supervised," I actually mean that I did most of the work myself. There was no budget to hire anyone to help me, so I just worked as quickly and as efficiently as possible. There was so much to do that, early on, I gave up attempting to do "film-quality" effects. Instead, I tried to do something a bit more stylized.

I worked on the storyline portion, which concerns a digital person named Ramona, portrayed by Pauley Perrette, as over time she develops from something similar to a Second Life avatar to a full-fledged, autonomous human. My work was mostly in the realm of greenscreen plates with digital sets, but I also developed the look transforming Pauley into Ramona's simple avatar. There were roughly 15 sequences, of which the majority was effects shots.

One of the biggest issues on the film was the FX editorial work. The production used Final Cut Pro, but had no budget for FX editorial, so I had to do all of that myself too.

Unfortunately, Final Cut does not lend itself to manufacturing shots for effects production with handles. The "Media Managed Export" would not trim shots to length if the source file was used more than once on the timeline - it would span the shots instead. Most of what I was doing would involve every shot in a sequence as an effects shot, so I had to break the sequence down and export to separate shot directories, all by hand. I would try to structure my Shake scripts so that shots that were "same as" could be reused for each subsequent shot.

There was a great deal of rotoscoping necessary due to the unfortunate expedient of covering the lovely green floor with sand for 5 sequences. I used Mocha for my roto work, and it works fantastically. I separate the roto as sort of an articulated paper doll, with one spline for upper arm, one for lower, etc., then use the planar tracker to follow the body motion, and finally, clean up the outline.

In addition to Ramona, there was also Ramona's digital helper, Samantha, who is represented as a sort of pixie type. For close up there was an actress, but the wide shots used a digital model I created. There were probably a hundred of those shots.


If Looks Could Kill
"If Looks Could Kill"


IF LOOKS COULD KILL

I did this music video for the San Francisco group Music for Animals, directed by Jordan Livingston, who was the Digital Imaging Technician and Post Production Supervisor on "Singularity." I handled on-set plate supervision, Art Direction and Visual Effects.

Jordan shot this video at the same time as one for darkwave group, Lilofee, using the RED. We had a great number of greenscreen shots that needed to hook up, and due to the issues I had had with FX editorial on "Singularity," I decided to use After Effects and a bunch of scripts that would allow me to bring the FCP timeline directly into After Effects (like Automatic Duck, but free). There, I could use pre-comps to work on the video as a whole.


THE PRANKSTER

This was great fun, a locally produced and directed feature by Tony Vidal, a coming of age high school comedy. I was Visual Effects Supervisor for on-set plate photography and Supervised the creation of 70+ shots including matte paintings, particle animation, screen replacements, rig removals and set extensions/ enhancements using Maya/Mental Ray; Shake, Particle Illusion, Mocha, Monet, SynthEyes and After Effects.


A NON-LINEAR CAREER

This illustrates some of the important principles that I have returned to throughout my career.

One is continuing to adapt my creative toolset. Don't think you ever know enough about computer graphics. You have to be open to constantly learning new software to keep on top of the changing effects environment. In addition to the ones I just mentioned, I have used many others, including PFTrack, and inhouse packages designed by ILM.

Most recently, I have been using Nuke, from The Foundry. If you were to ask how Nuke fits into my bag of tricks, I would say that Nuke IS my bag of tricks now. I love how integrated the 3D component is, and how you can seamlessly blend the 2D and 3D worlds, up and downstream of the scanline render.

Another guiding principle I have followed is organization. In a single year, I completed over 600 effects shots: 420 for "Singularity," 110 for "If Looks Could Kill," and 75 for "The Prankster." For how I managed to do that much work, there is no easy answer, other than to say that I am pretty organized, and have experience putting together production pipelines - and that I worked myself half to death.

Even though I was doing all the work for "Singularity" myself (except for the animation by Miguel Fuertes for the Elephant and the Mermaid), I used my first two weeks to set up working methodologies and directory structures to handle all the data.

Finally, I have never settled for filling only a single role. Before I used CG software, I was a painter and puppeteer, two skills that remain instrumental for me. I hired, trained and supervised teams of artists to work on the creation of digital characters, sets, props and vehicles. I painted storyboards and created animatics, designed layouts, built and lit sets, created camera moves and originated overall cinematic styles. I worked closely with directors, producers and production managers to develop schedules and budgets for the delivery of digital assets, while maintaining integrity of creative vision.

Note that none of these roles has very much to do directly with CG software. They are related to people skills, communication, understanding creative processes, organizing and keeping schedules, and being aware of how all of these affect the budgets of the people paying for the work. It is essential to develop these alongside your artistic skills if you are to survive in a rapidly evolving creative landscape.

In the meantime, I am working on titles for a documentary on the life of poet Gary Snyder produced by Will Hearst, and teaching a class in matchmoving at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

I am also working on another music video. This one will be much more intense than the last, with a great deal of fire and smoke dynamics necessary to create the look of a video taking place during a nuclear holocaust. The video, as directed and edited by Jordan Livingston, already looks great, shot in 2:1 "Storaro Vision" on the RED, and looking like a feature. It will be amazing once we have completed the effects.

I am also working on taking my own advice, as I continue to develop my skills, and find new ways and places to apply them. Working on gigantic productions at large studios in the past was fun, but these days, I am much more interested in working on smaller productions, and applying my skills to allow producers to give their movies the look and feel of an expensive Hollywood production, without the expensive Hollywood price.
Tony Hudson Tony Hudson
Petaluma, California USA

In addition to the projects mentioned here, Tony built models and supervised effects on "Willow," "The Golden Child," "Backdraft," "Die Hard 2," and "Back to the Delorean," which is currently in post production. He has posted in COW forums including Final Cut Pro, Particle Illusion, After Effects and the Sony CineAlta F900 & PDW Series camera forum. You can see his reel at:
reels.creativecow.net/tony-hudson-2009-demo-reel


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