Making Big Plans
As I completed school, I was convinced I should pursue a career in features.
The first opportunity was to join a friend of mine, Albertus Bodenstein, who was running a small audiovisual division at a medical non-government organization, producing NPSA adverts, educational videos, and promotional pieces. We also made a few documentaries of the organization's medical outreaches to sub- Saharan Africa, from Angola to Mozambique - all at a zero budget.
We trained ourselves throughout the whole process, from script to screen, reading every possible book, manual and article on the subject, as well as attending a number of short-term courses. I specialized in the concept development and writing, doing a little voice-over work and so on, but in general, we both did everything. We learned to handle a camera, burn fingers and retinas on lighting setups, knock actors over with the mic boom, and spend sleepless nights with Pinnacle DV100 - one of the first firewire editing cards (which was notoriously unstable, teaching us the industry-standard virtue of patience).
As we developed higher quality productions, especially for the organization's educational productions, we were infected by the visual arts, and started dreaming big.
We then decided to get into the commercial arena, and Albertus established 3DTree a little over three years ago, from his garage. Lots of freelance-type work, from logo builds to architectural visualization, building up the reel and approaching agencies in the pursuit of better work. I joined him a year and a half ago, to expand our work beyond the fast-improving 3D animation into visual effects.
Since then, we've grown to five in our company, starting with another 3D guru who specializes in (but is not limited to) simulations, environment creation and particle systems. We also yanked in a seasoned editor and compositor, as well as a graphic designer and modeling artist. (The virtual type of modeling - no catwalk involved, usually).
Albertus and I manage the company and various projects (we have had to run up to five jobs simultaneously) in our strengths. For example, he will handle the character animation spots, while I manage the environment replacement visual effects.
We've worked on a number of high-profile adverts here in South Africa, and I have had to jack up my skills in matchmoving and mocap, working in Boujou, PFTrack, and more recently Movimento. Most of my day is spent on Combustion, AE, and Toxik. I'm also on 3D Studio Max with mental ray - in general the systems that are the backbone of 3DTree.
(We're quite versatile on systems. We sometimes work in collaboration with other post-houses, so we often have to use what they use - like Boujou or AE - but in general, we stick to a workflow between Combustion and 3DS Max. The other "support" systems are so interchangeable, I'd rather not mention them.)
My "day job," then, is working on composites, 3D, rotoscopes, matchmoves, yelling at interns and getting shots rendered on time. The rest of my time is spent on my writing, and developing screenplays and short films.
However, we have all learned to multi-task. If one is not working on a particular job, everyone has a training program set up to expand their skills. For example, I am our matchmover, but I'm handing that over to our secondary compositor, while I focus on motion-capture.
When it comes to the type of work we do as a company, it is quite diverse. Some projects involve the full production from concept to completion, but often we just do an animation or specific effect, anything from the logo build to the plate clean-up and stabilization. While we started out doing almost anything - from graphic design to web publishing - our animation and visual effects has kept us focused on commercials and corporate productions.
The car in this 3DTree-composited scene is entirely CG - note wireframe in the image below. Reflections and lighting were added with the help of data gathered on set, including reflections in the mirror ball light probe, lower right of both images.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
We love research and development. The research we do is to improve our skills, while expanding our reel. The rule is, learn on the job, or make something awesome while figuring out some new discipline.
Right now, we regularly go onto the street or our parking garage with our mirror-ball, creating HDRIs, and getting the locals scratching their heads or rolling their eyes, wondering what we are doing.
Whenever one wants to place something CG into a live-action scene, the best results come with practice -and preparation.
That means being on set with a big kit to take down measurements and camera data, lay tracking markers, and take lots and lots of reference photographs.
Very importantly for your own preparations, take a few good light probes - basically, setting up a mirror ball and shooting multiple exposures from it that will be combined into a high dynamic range image (HDRI) later on. The reflection of the set on the ball can be converted into complete panoramic environment to be used in your animation package. Being HDR (32- bit), it has all the lighting information you could want.
Once one has this, one can get very accurate "real life" lighting and accurate reflections in your 3D environment that is drawn from the live action environment. The reference photos, on-set data and HDRIs all help with matchmoving, matching the lighting, and figuring out what happened on the set once it's forgotten and locked into that one camera angle you are trying to figure out by watching over and over, and over again!
You can assemble your own HDRI kit on the cheap that produces the results to match the big guys at ILM, Digital Domain, and even 3DTree! It takes some toying around and figuring out, but is an awesome tool, essential when trying to put a 3D car, monster, or digital double into a real life environment. Using mirror balls is not a silver bullet to the problem of matching lighting and reflections, but it gets you 80% there.
VFX NOTE: Ever wonder how to fill stadiums and create a crowd, when you only have a few people? The guys at 3DTree will show you how at the bottom of this article. And check out their tech video in the Reels Section of Creative COW.
Each project, regardless of its complexity or timeline, must have a project plan. This may sound like overkill on a one-day logo build, but once one runs several artists and multiple jobs simultaneously, it is vital. (I also save time by reusing old project plans and schedules for similar jobs.)
The first step in approaching a job is to assess and plan it, especially if it will involve several artists and departments, and will go from concept art to a final render. Here we break up the job into tasks - menial stuff, from "brainstorm concept" to "storyboard sequence" to "model character." We then go into more detail, from estimated time on a task, to assigning the task and creating a schedule. This includes dates for in-house work-in-progress updates (WIP), as well as client-approval WIPs.
In the client quote, we also lay out a contract of scheduled approvals - meaning that, at various points throughout production, the client will sign off an approval for each step: Modeling, Texturing, Animatic, Final Render, etc.
Clients either come in for a WIP approval, or we just upload MOV files to an ftp, and have clients approve via email. (That's for the easier clients of course.)
Depending on the size of the project, some of these approvals are "payment points." For example, on a significant project (e.g., a 2-month animation), 25% will be paid before the project starts, 25% after modeling and basic animatics, and the rest paid before final delivery. However, in general, we simply get a 50% deposit before the project commences, and the rest before final delivery.
Before then, each artist gets his task-list on each project every morning before work - that is, if we're running on a normal schedule and not thru-the-night emergency panic-stations. There are also probably one or two in-house WIP approvals with the job supervisor, one at midday, and the other before going back into the real world that night. This way, there's a constant and immediate update on the progress of each project and what each artist is involved with.
For individual projects - editing, motion graphics, and especially animation - we always try to do some storyboard animatics. This could be simple boards thrown together in Photoshop or Sketchbook, or just reference images from the web, animated on a timeline to give an idea of composition, timing, and layout of the shot(s). Again, this may seem overkill, but it is essential to good workflow and communication, especially when working with multiple artists.
After this, models are approved before rigging and skinning textures are approved, often dealt with by a separate artist while animation is being done. Then animation is approved, followed by individual approvals for cameras & lighting, rendering, compositing, and mastering.
While the process is quite organic and there is some back-and-forth work, one tries to adhere to the workflow. It's important to have each section handled and approved separately. It is quite miserable going back to modeling after you have already mapped and skinned a character. None of this is quite as linear as it sounds, of course, but you get the idea.
As the old adage goes, business is about relationships, and relationships take time. I schedule at least one day a week to seeing potential clients and building these relationships. Even when one has a lot of work, it is important to keep this going.
We have sometimes worked directly with clients, but in general, we approach and build relationships with various advertising agencies or production studios, and they bring the clients to us.
To begin, I first do a little research on the agency. Do they mostly do live-action commercials involving some photoreal visual effects? Full 3D character animation spots? I find out which directors they represent, and watch a few commercials or jobs they've done in the past.
Our showreel is specifically set up for these meetings - a cool introduction, the reel itself, then several menus showcasing visual effects, character animation, corporate videos, visualizations, and so on. I'll then have a short meeting with the agency producer/ production manager, usually 30 minutes or so, where I show them our reel and introduce 3DTree as a company.
I then show them a few "making of" clips, and give some background on certain jobs, and how we were involved. This is the main part of the pitch, and where our reel and previous work make or break the deal. If they have confidence in the quality of our work, most of the job is already done.
After the first meeting, I follow up in a day or two by sending an email with a little something we've done in the past (could just be a link to a making-of or a complete spot), and I attach our rate card and company profile (just to blip on their radar again).
Either during that meeting or the follow up call(s), I try to arrange a few meetings with their directors - and this is where you actually land work. Meeting a director is quite different from meeting the agency production manager. It's dealing with a creative person, and often they will want to know specifics about a job you've done, or how you approach work, and sometimes, how you would approach a job he is currently planning or pitching.
Whether meeting a producer or director, getting to know them on a first-name basis is vital. They attach a person to the work/reel and often one lands a job based on personality rather than ability. So, become a people-person! It's all about building relationships.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Our love for movies has inspired us. While we have moved on from intensive production into a more specialized animation and visual-effects focus, our intention is to go on to feature film production.
As we began working towards opening a branch of 3DTree in Los Angeles, a storm of red tape came our way, and we've been wading and working our way though it since. We have already been developing a number of short and feature film screenplays, and have received some interest from several production studios.
Since it's such a tight situation - and somewhat of a business gamble - business at 3DTree in South Africa is to go on, more aggressively than before. While I am constantly training on compositing, animation and production, my biggest learning curve is figuring out the business side of things. We've got our projections and targets planned and plotted, and I'll be managing production and marketing to potential clients, as well as following up on old ones, while Albertus and a business collaborator start up in LA.
As things develop, we'll hopefully pull a number of American artists into the company as we expand.
That's the plan. Or part of it at least!
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