Thursday, October 15, 2009

#0028 More on Twitter for Collaboration


I proposed using Twitter for collaboration in my last post, #0027, "Using Social Networking".  After writing the blog, I jumped onto LinkedIn groups and asked for feedback.   This is one of the ways I was suggesting we can use social networking tools: to get and give information.

Results were quick.  LinkedIn VES group member (and former colleague and friend) Torey Alvarez called our attention to Twitter's beta test new business oriented service, CoTweet.

This service has a rich feature set to help business users.  These would also make its use as a collaboration tool within a VFX company even more powerful.  I'm not going to do their marketing job for them, but I suggest you can follow them@cotweet or visit the homepage at

I'm not yet using this service, but I will give it a thorough check out.  
In the meantime, please drop me a Tweet to tell me you're reading 
--and what cool stuff you're working on now. 

Also, check this out:

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

#0027 Using Social Networking


Social Networking:
A Management Tool

Lately I've been interested in social networking tools, both for getting (and keeping) a job, and as a potential tool for pulling together work teams and speeding up feedback loops.  I've come to see that CG supervisors and producers need to embrace these tools for both reasons.  By embrace, I mean use and master.

My journey into these tools began long ago, because I'm going to expand my definition to embrace not only tools like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Spacebook and so forth, but also tools like Google Docs, Calendars, Basecamp and other applications that foster communication and collaboration.

Email is perhaps the most familiar and most ancient of the tools available.  Overtime, email users have developed some cultural guidelines for how to use email effectively.  However, I believe that how and when we use email will radically shift as more people begin to rely on the new social networking tools.

Now, by new, I mean the tools that have been emerging over the last few years.  Today I want to talk about the tool I think has the most power and potential for us: Twitter.  You may ask, why Twitter and not Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

Twitter differs from the other applications in a significant way: it is essentially a super-group-chat, and the primary use of Twitter is to hold conversations within a community of users.  

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

Facebook  and MySpace are excellent, general purpose, social networking apps.  I haven't jumped into MySpace, but  Facebook's terms of service restrict it's use to non-commercial networking, so it's a place to connect with friends and family.  However, Facebook gives professionals and businesses a "page", with most of the features of a Facebook account, including a wall.  I use one to separate my personal and professional networks: Isa A Alsup, but the way I use it is redundant to my Twitter site.  I just want to reach my professional contacts that haven't jumped into Twitter or LinkedIn.

Image representing LinkedIn as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

Sites like LinkedIn and VFXConnection aim at building professional networks.  LinkedIn is very restrictive about attempting to link in people you don't know, while VFXConnection seems to have no restrictions.  On the other hand, LinkedIn seems vast with members and groups, while VFXConnection is less so.  But VFXConnection has more services, including a job board and resume posting, so it's sort of a hybrid social networking and job site.   Both offer groups, and this is a good way to extend your professional contact list.

You may think networking is just about finding a job, but it's much more than that.  But let's start there.  If you're not sure about the importance of professional or career networking, I suggest you finish this article, thenimmediately go to the blog of The Career Coach, Pamela Kleibrink Thompson published on the Animation World Network,   Pamela points up the foolishness of "Working Without a Net(work)" and provides valuable guidance in her column.  Sooner or later you will need a new job, and 80% of jobs, she points out, are never advertised.

Almost 80% of jobs are never advertised
--Cornell University Career Services,
attributed by Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

Using network tools to find a job are outside the scope of this blog, which is why I refer you to Pamela. also has great articles, but Pamela is the Master of Masters when it comes to coaching careers.  The important point here is to build your network now and work it now.  Follow Pamela's advice about how to network without becoming a leech or nuisance by using your network to contribute to helping others.  As the movie title goes, Pay It Forward.

Helping others and getting help are the way you can and will use your network most of the time.  Joel Comm, in his book "Twitter Power", reminds us that the most important part of the word "network" is the "work".  It's not enough to click a few links and collect a bunch of connections.  You need to work to give value to the connections, by answering questions and being supportive.  On LinkedIn, don't wait to be asked for recommendations, give them.  When asked, give.  Give, give, give.  The act of giving and receiving in a social network requires a conversation to occur.  In fact, sometimes the gift is the conversation: for example, when you offer support, praise or answer a question.  An inexpensive but valuable gift.

And this is why I believe that our best tool for social networking isn't email, or blogging, or building connections, it's having conversations.   Enter Twitter, which fosters and enables conversations.  Sure, you can use Facebook or LinkedIn or even email, but nothing is as simple and as effective as Twitter.

Get out there and build a social network, get in the conversation, and help one another.  Join professional groups in LinkedIn and start using Twitter to build and maintain connections within the CG and VFX community.  Certainly tell us what you're doing now, and add what you're thinking about, feeling, reading, inspired by, and would like to do.  Ask questions and give answers.  Be a friend.  Give help, and ask for help.  You'll thank me later.


Twitter bird logo icon illustration 
Use Twitter At Work


You spend a huge part of your day having conversations as a CG Supervisor or producer.  Most of these will be with subordinates and a few with superiors and if you are very lucky, a tiny fraction with peers.

Recently, I managed a CG department with 36 employees.  One day my boss called me and asked me to come across the street to his office.  I immediately stopped what I was doing and headed for the door.  Between the phone and the door, three floors down, I had no less than seven conversations in the next few minutes --all about ongoing projects.  By the time I walked half a block to the crossing, crossed and made it to the other building I had another conversation with a worker who came with me (to continue the conversation) and another on my cell phone. The entire day was one conversation after another.

What are we talking about?  Everything.    Status on shots.  Notes I need addressed.  Status on source materials.  Vacation request.  An artist is again asking for Photoshop.  Someone missed a deadline.  Materials for next week's episode are late.  Scheduling a meeting.  Network issues. A shader problem.  Do I like the lighting?  Lunch.  Hiring.  Someone leaving.  A camera move.  Are these waves OK? Look at this cool stereographic image I made using projection mapping.  Is the model approved.....  On and on and on.

This was my day, exhausting and stimulating.  I managed a crew of 36 at peak, most of the time closer to 20.  Three subordinate supervisors and two coordinators carried a heavy load, so I did not have to handle everything.  Imagine a bigger crew, perhaps even scattered on many floors (I only had two floors to deal with) or several buildings or more than one city?  Email may be a good way to stay in touch, and there are other tools we will look at like Basecamp, Shotgun, Google Apps, and the like, but for many communications, Twitter (or a tool like it) may be the answer.

In a nutshell, you need to set up a Twitter account separate from your personal account.  It could be for your CG company, division or department or team.  It could be for one or more projects.  The fun thing, is you get to decide.

Say your company is producing at any given time four films, and your crew is mostly assigned to one film, although a few rare specialists may be assigned to two films.  The CG Supervisor or Producer or Coordinator for the film sets up a protected Twitter account, where only approved people may follow the tweet timeline.  This is vital to meet any non-disclosure agreements your company is obliged to follow.   Then users would set-up a separate work Twitter account and follow the project.

And there you are.  All your status reports from all team members are flying around where whoever needs the information has it.  Coordinators can see it.  You can ask so and so to follow up.  A question about a shader.  A comment on a camera move.  Information is moving.  You're conversing.  And further, you're able to record the conversations.

Other tools exist to organize the conversation, and we will look at these in the context of how they will support the approval and material pipeline.  But for your everyday, simple to use and easy to setup tool, Twitter is the tool for your Production Pipeline.

A few caveats: it may be a protected conversation, but in the workplace, not every conversation is for all ears!  Vacation requests and anything personal should be handled in a private channel, either a private chat or better an email or whatever form your company policy dictates.  Some conversations should not be written, and others must always be written or somehow recorded.  Very sensitive matters, like employee discipline, should be witnessed by another supervisor.  All this is outside the realm of Twitter.


not every conversation is for all ears! 

In the workplace, use Twitter to praise.  Have a private conversation to rebuke.  Use it to guide individuals and build the team.  Promote some casual talk, but don't let it become a chat and gossip pool.  Build morale and team spirit.  Use it to make group announcemen, remind people about deadlines.  Use it to communicate all those things that email is just not efficient at.

A final word: Twitter is a social networking tool.  Like any tool, you need to learn to use it and learn to use it well.  Get a good book, I recommend Joel Comm's Twitter Power, but there are others for Twitter and for other tools.  (I'm currently reading LinkedWorking by Frank Agin and Frank Howes).

I strongly recommend adding Twitter to your internal communications network and to your personal professional network. If you do use it at work, please follow me and let me know how it goes.

I wish I had been using it on my last job and will use it in the future.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#0026 Better Pipelines with Pros

A complex fractal image, generated in PASCAL.

Since my last post, life has been full of adventure and chaos,
most of it unrelated to CG Supervision. My daughter started college, our family was forced to find new housing when our landlord lost his house to the bank, looking for work, and a million other distractions. Through it all, I have been thinking long and hard about the future directions that CG Supervision is taking, and how I can help readers understand the changes that are happening and I believe will be coming so we can shape a future good for the CG industry and good for ourselves.

My intention has been to continue the CG pipeline series, and in post #0024 "Just a quick update..." I outlined the series direction. That intention remains, but it is a major undertaking that requires a good deal of focused time. Most of my thinking lately has been on the way VFX companies recruit and hire, probable directions of the CG industry and its import to myself and my readers, and new technologies and methods for command and control of the CG pipeline.

Hollywood Sign 
I believe that the worldwide economic condition is effecting CG workers globally, with large effect on U.S. visual effects CG workers, due to the outsourcing of jobs worldwide.  Outsourcing has been on the rise for over 15 years now, and today the effect can be seen looking at job boards like CreativeHeads, where the majority of ads placed are for jobs in England, Canada, and Australia. The U.S. market is still strong in games production, judging by CreativeHeads ads, but ads for non-U.S. jobs now dominate by 2:1 or greater. And that's a job site with HQ in Los Angeles, the historical heart of film making. The job board Smoothdevil caters almost exclusively to the European market and is quite full of offerings.

For single workers with Bachelors degrees under age 30, opportunities abound to work abroad on what are called work-vacation visas. To get one in many countries, you need to declare an intent to vacation in the country where you will work, and the visa you apply for allows you to work to pay for your vacation. Neat legal opportunity to see the world and work abroad, if you are single and 18-30.

After age 30 through 49, you can still get a work visa in many countries. For example, to work in Canada, you need to score 67 points on their qualification test. A Bachelor's degree is worth 20 point, and so on. After age 50, points are subtracted for your age.

Age discrimination is packaged subtly in the U.S. market as well. When an ad suggests "3-5 years experience", you need to understand that 5 years is considered a maximum. Showing more experience will most likely result in your resume being tossed. Employers in this way are limiting the job pool to workers more or less fresh out of college and those with less than five years experience: effectively cutting out most workers over 30.

Students working on class assignment in comput...
How does hiring 
less experienced workers

effect the CG supervisor? 

First, it means that increasingly, you are working with people who barely will know how to get a shot made. Your crew will comprise relatively green workers with relatively narrow work skills --specialists. Oddly, a specialist used to mean someone who spent years in a craft as a generalist who gradually developed a specialty, for example, in Lighting. Today, it's the opposite: a specialist is someone who after graduation, fell into an entry level job, did mainly lighting, and now does that fairly well, but cannot animate a camera to save his life.

Your CG crew will include a few people who have been around a while, providing some depth of experience, but after a few years these people may be cycled out of the company for younger, lower-paid workers, easy to do as each film wraps. A percentage of experienced workers are retained and paid very well, but in most cases the staff comprises specialists who repetitively do the same sort of shots for months at a time. Some will graduate into "supervision", which means a technical leader to most companies, and the rest will be let go.

The upshot for the CG supervisor is that your pipeline can become less and less flexible if your staff is less and less versatile.

Now a large VFX production company can handle that, but smaller companies need versatile pipelines. Hence the long-term prospects for employment in the VFX business for workers who fall out of the large production houses, is going to be smaller companies and starting their own small companies. Some will freelance for a few years, but if you leave VFX film making for a few years to pursue other interests or opportunities, your reel becomes stale and your skills are questioned. You may be better than before: faster, nimble, experienced, but the VFX world is looking for cheap.

This is odd, because often VFX large houses pay more than the small houses for less qualified workers. When I was hiring for a small CG production department, I was able to find workers with broader skill sets and hire them for less than workers who were specialists. I was able to hire good people at rates below those commonly paid by large studios because I was working with mostly generalists.  I hired roughly a third senior people and a third juniors, with a solid core of experienced generalists in the center.  A few of our exceptional people had both general and specialized skills, which helped us meet occasional special needs.

Let's face it, older workers are less likely to pull an all nighter and more likely to want time with their families.  But we as supervisors should not view these as negatives; after all, the point in working is to support life, so why complain when people want to live it?  We should expect a fair return for wages and can ask workers to be there for the big crunch, but we don't own them.

I find the situation sad, in part because it shuts out workers beyond a certain age (who leave the business in frustration), in part because it limits job opportunities for experienced workers (including CG supervisors), and in part because the inefficiencies of using poorly trained and inexperienced workers will eventually manifest themselves in an inflexible and less effective pipeline.

Further, the world population, especially in the U.S. and other "western" countries, is aging.  Bill Bennett writes about the problem of age discrimination toward knowledge based workers in "The madness that is age discrimination"

Sure, human brains slow down as we age, but they also amass experience and wisdom. Older workers have a lot to offer. It may be true that they can’t work through the night as frequently as youngsters or go on so many of those macho programming ‘death marches’. On the other hand, older workers tend to be more reliable and stable.

Perhaps the silliest aspect of age discrimination is that while the skills shortage may not be pressing right now, it hasn’t gone away. Many knowledge based industries are finding it hard to recruit enough youngsters, as older people drift away many won’t be capable of making a return if industry wakes up and decides it needs them any way.

The loss of efficiency in pipelines due to replacing experienced workers with specialized novices will put more pressure on producers and supervisors to use cheap (inexperienced) labor. Further, the loss of an experienced labor pool will eventually become an issue if not enough generalists and experienced older workers are retained.  The abandonment and loss of experience in local markets will drive more and more outsourcing.  Good for my non-U.S. readers, bad for the rest.

Or is it good for the non-U.S. vfx workers? Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a feature article about visual effects outsourcing to international vendors. The article reported that once vfx was established in a country for a few years, wage and efficiency pressures made outsourcing there less attractive, and the outsourcing was shifted to a country with a lower standard of living. Eventually, your company's new facility in India will exhibit the same inefficiencies as the one in Los Angeles, and management will start looking at China or Nigeria or Kamchatka.

Eventually we will run out of poorer nations, but that will not happen for a long, long time. The message to everyone working in this industry, whether you are in Los Angeles, Melbourne, London, Vancouver, Casablanca, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai.... your company can outsource your job, and will, unless it sees working with you is worth their money.

I believe the problem of VFX production costs cannot be solved by continually shopping for an outsource vendor in a cheaper nation. The problem is that we need to embrace experienced workers for the efficiencies they can bring to an operation. Not all older workers will meet the criteria of efficiency I'm talking about, because age does not guarantee experience and skill. But as I have long observed, the challenges in CG-VFX are often how well and how quickly we can solve technical and artistic problems.

An assembly-line mentality is not geared to solving problems- it works by avoiding problems. There are two groups of people who are good at solving problems: young, energized artists with new ideas AND enthusiastic, experienced artists who know how things work. The best is the skillful worker, with youthful energy and years of experience, who keeps his mind and ideas fresh and knows his tools well enough to animate with his eyes shut. I'm saying that to build better pipelines, stop looking for the cheap laborer who can follow a template tutorial: hire the generalist who is specialized. Build better pipelines with pros.

Finding and recruiting experienced workers is one of our key responsibilities as CG Supervisors. Looking for better people and putting them to work is what we need to do to make our pipelines more efficient. It's not easy, and it begins with ourselves. As the saying goes, "wake up and smell the coffee!"

  * Description: Coffee cortado (An latte...
Are we staying up with new technologies? Are we keeping abreast of changes in our field? Are we stimulating our imaginations? Are we letting management know we are relevant and important?

Are we technologists who happen to supervise, or are we supervisors who love the technology and the art? A CG supervisor is one who works with people to get the job done, gives them training and tools, and provides and promotes effective policies and work procedures.

Have fun on your job!          

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

#0025 Join the CG Supervisors Network

Networking is all about sharing information, and while this blog allows me to share my views on CG Supervision and readers to comment, I felt more interaction would be helpful to us all. So I started thegroup, the CG Supervisors Network.

The group provides a networking forum for professional CG Supervisors (anyone supervising CG workers) to exchange ideas, techniques, discuss supervisory issues and become friends.

While there are many other CG groups and the Visual Effects Society has a group, I felt a group dedicated to the needs and interests of CG supervisors, CG producers, CG coordinators and

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

#0024 Just a quick update ...

A variety of low value coins, including a (his...



Coins in the fountain   

Hey everyone...
Been swamped this week chasing the coin of the realm and haven't moved on to the next installment.  Wanted to mull over and organize my thoughts before I shifted into gear.  When I kick my ideas onto the back burner, my subconscious works in odd ways. Eventually something else, often seemingly unrelated, sparks my motor.
I've been updating my personal literature and demos and I slapped together a quick website because I wasn't happy with how my videos were being presented.

Tomorrow I have to re-edit some demos, to narrow my focus more tightly and sharpen the axe.  Always a fun job, because being objective about one's work is a challenge.
Perhaps I will do an article about the labor situation.  Would that be of interest to readers?  Perhaps you can send me your thoughts and experiences. I was talking with a friend tonight, and he says unemployment in the Los Angeles area is about 20 percent.  Add the unofficially unemployed, like freelancers who can't claim benefits, and it could jump another 5 percent to 25% -or more.
Enough about me ....  In a few days I can get back to talking about pipelines.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

#0023 CG pipelines defined

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   Defining the   
Computer Graphics Pipeline   

Before we move into an in-depth examination of CG production pipelines, let 's clarify our definition of a pipeline.  In parts 1 to 4 of this series, we deconstructed the pipeline and looked at what it is not and the characteristics that define a CG pipeline.

In preparing this series, drawn mostly from my own experience, I made a survey of available documents on the internet and found very few discussions about CG pipelines, other than a plethora of want ads for supervisors capable of defining, constructing and maintaining CG production pipelines.  I did come across a masters thesis by Dane Edward Bettis, written in 2005, that attempted to define the CG production pipeline, describe the need for CG production pipelines, and provided examples of operating pipelines and a brief methodology for designing a CG production pipeline.  His paper, "Digital production pipelines: examining structures and methods in the computer effects industry", published online through Texas A&M University, looks at CG production pipelines from the point of view of companies making fully animated 3d films.  It is an interesting academic look at our industry.

Monday, August 10, 2009

#0022 Workflows vs Pipelines

040130-N-9693M-020 U.S. Naval Academy, Annapol...

From One to Many  
In this, part 4 of our series on pipelines we will look at how a pipeline and a workflow are connected and how they differ from one another,  an understanding key to talking about and discussing pipelines.
In our previous posts, we explored the basic ideas of pipelines.  In post #0018 Understanding Pipelines, we de-constructed the three classes of CG pipelines: production, material and approval, or task, data and meta-data.  We also looked at how the word "pipeline" may have entered CG production management jargon from its roots in CG software and hardware.  In post #0019 The Pipeline -Form Follows Function we examine these three classes in greater detail and discuss how the form of a pipeline is dependent on the mission and personnel available. 

In part three, #0020 The Technology is Not the Pipeline, we differentiate technology pipelines as found within software and hardware tools from production pipelines.  We also introduced the three dimensions of pipelines: personnel, tools and procedure.    We continue now to define the scope and nature of CG pipelines by dealing with a common area of confusion, the difference between a workflow and a pipeline.  While this was dealt with to some degree in bog #0020 using the analogy of a fry cook and a baker,  I wish to refine the concept for us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

#0021 Effects Corner: VFX management

If you have not found it yet, noted VFX Supervisor Scott Squires has a blog on VFX called Effects Corner,

Topics in the blog, which has been active the last few months even while Scott is working on the forthcoming VES Handbook, range through a variety of VFX issues, including some managerial and many technical and artistic.

If particular relevance to readers looking to learn about CG and VFX Supervision is his post on VFX management, which gives a quick overview of some of the important issues we are discussing. See Effects Corner: VFX management

Saturday, August 1, 2009

#0020 The Technology is Not the Pipeline

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
Image via Wikipedia

Technical Pipelines 
Many CG artists and managers confuse the technical aspects of the CG production pipeline with the pipeline itself.  

Let's look at the difference and while we're at it, look at the common attributes found in the three classes of pipelines: production, material and approval.
The first thing to consider is that technologies change over time.  A few hundred years ago, the major technology in graphic arts was the hand printing press, similar to this German one shown here from 1811. While use of this technology required certain work flows in the production process, the technology was not the process.

If one were to decompose the CG production process into a more generalized graphic design process, one could see that a simplified production pipeline in graphic arts is comprised of:
  1. acquisition of assets
  2. design
  3. composition
  4. impression aka reproduction aka rendering
Looked at from this point of view, the essentials of a graphic arts production pipeline have changed only in terms of detail while the technologies of graphic arts have progressed from the "stone" age of offset lithography to our contemporary electronic age of computer graphics.

 The Technology Pipeline
So is there such a thing as a technology pipeline?  Just where does technology fit in to a production pipeline? 

The answer is there are technology pipelines within the realm of computer science at both the application and the hardware level, but these are not CG pipelines as such.  Recall that in article #0018, Understanding Pipelines we looked at how Silicon Graphics introduced the hardware graphics engine, or graphics pipeline, in the early 1980's.  The use of data piping within software and hardware is an essential part of today's CG technology.  It is the most likely origin of the word "pipeline" to describe the production processes used in computer graphics today.  

 Fry Cooks and Bakers
Understanding the semantic link between CG pipelines and technology pipelines can, however, better help us understand what makes a pipeline a pipeline and not just a process.  Let's compare frying an egg and the process of baking a cake.

 When frying an egg  one gathers the egg, the pan and the oil in one spot, fires up the heat, oils the pan, breaks the egg in the pan and let's it warm and solidify, then flips (or not) the egg once and calls it done.  This is a process, not a pipeline.  The reason is there is no step by step evolution of the egg being fried. 

Image by andrea dunlap via Flickr

cake maker

When baking a cake, there is a recipe, on paper or in the baker's mind, and a vision of what the finished cake will look like.  The baker assembles the ingredients, mixes the batter, pours the batter  into a form, preheats the oven and then bakes the cake.  While the cake is baking, the frosting is mixed and other decorations gathered; when the cake has baked and cooled, the baker applies the finishing decorations.  This has a definite series of steps, gradual progression of product, and can be divided into meaningful task units and these tasks may be assigned to more than one person, enabling specialization.  Further, if the task is divided between specialists producing multiple cakes, these tasks can occur in parallel.

One could argue that frying an egg can be broken down into a series of tasks.  The distinction is that dividing these tasks into separate processes is not meaningful when it comes to frying an egg but can be beneficial when baking a cake.  So a pipeline is comprised of a sequence of processes that can flow in a linear or parallel nature relative to one another.

As this example illustrates, the processes of computer graphics together comprise a pipeline.  Just as some computer software procedures can be linked together to form a pipeline for processing data, so the procedures in computer graphics are tied together to make a pipeline.  However, they are not a pipeline until they are tied together.

 The Three Dimensions of a Pipeline
Every pipeline, whether it is a production, material, or approval pipeline, is comprised of three dimensions that together determine its effectiveness and efficiency.  In his Texas A&M University master's thesis on digital production pipelines, Dane Edward Bettis calls this the "three layer pipeline".  He defines the layers as "Personnel Arrangement", "Implementation and Managing Complexity" and "Optimization of Computer Systems".  To expand and simplify our thinking I see there exist three dimensions within any type of pipeline:
  1. Personnel
  2. Tools
  3. Procedures
Every pipeline can be defined in terms of these three dimensions.  Put another way, no matter what processes comprise a pipeline, each process involves these three dimensions.

For example, the surface modeling process requires personnel with specific skills and abilities using tools with specific capabilities while observing specific work procedures governing not only the process but also the movement of the assets in and out of the modeling phase.

Where Technology Comes in
We can now answer our earlier question, "what is the place of technology in the production pipeline?"  Unless we are replacing skilled artists with technology, which has and can happen, the technology comes in most obviously at the level of the tools employed.  As Mr. Bettis makes clear in his use of the terminology "Optimization of Computer Systems", this is an area where the sharper the tool, the better. 

Less obvious is that the dimension of procedure lends itself to partial automation through the use of technology.  A pipeline can exist with little or no automation of procedures for moving data through the system, but it will suffer from the vagaries of human error and negligence.  As Mr. Bettis points out, this is an area that should be automated.  He believes it so strongly that in his thesis he makes no allowance for non-automated implementation of policies and procedures related to the movement of the product through the pipeline.  The degree a company can and should invest in this automation depends on factors we will discuss in a future article.

While the pipeline IS NOT the technology, as a technological art, the computer graphics pipeline depends a great deal on technology.  We will explore these ideas further as we discuss in detail the three classes of pipelines: the production pipeline, the material pipeline, and the approval pipeline.

Happy Renders to you!
 Bettis, Dane Edward "Digital production pipelines: examining structures and methods in the computer effects industry", Texas A&M University,, 2005; A useful examination of the digital pipeline with specific examples of pipeline structures.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

#0019 The Pipeline -Form Follows Function

All Saints Chapel in the Cathedral Basilica of St.Image via Wikipedia

Pipeline Design 101

Anyone who has taken any sort of introductory design class, whether in art, graphics, architecture or what have you, knows that "form follows function". When designing a CG pipeline one needs to consider the function of the pipeline before designing the structure let alone the mechanics.

In our last post, "#0018 Understanding Pipelines" we discussed that the term pipeline is broadly used for many different things, from software and hardware component design to include various types of CG work pipelines. In an epiphany of sorts, I came to realize that a CG pipeline can fall in any of three classes:
  1. the production pipeline: the labor processes and steps
  2. the material pipeline: the data assets acquired, produced and delivered
  3. the approval pipeline: the direction and redirection mechanism and loop
Another way of looking at this is process, data and metadata; to get totally geek and introduce some new jargon, we could speak of the primary, secondary and tertiary pipelines.

Case Study 1:
Small Shop, Big Job, Varied Jobs

I recall on

Travelstart Design Studio is officially 3 of u...

e day after working with a fellow for six months he stood up and declared to me, "we need a pipeline!"

At the time we were producing about 35 shots a week with a crew of about seven 3d artists and five compositors. Our production pipeline was deliberately simple. While we were all working on the same television series with a fairly defined theme, the content of each episode could vary widely, and hence the nature of demands on our small 3d team was constantly shifting.

Primary Pipeline: Production
I therefore preferred to staff with a number of generalists at different skill levels, but I included one generalist who was a strong modeler and one who was strong in dynamics. A 3d supervisor provided muscle to round out any gaps in skill sets, and I would step in to demonstrate "advanced" 3d techniques in anything from models to animation to shaders.

From our 3d unit the work would move to our compositing unit, where again we had little specialization, other than skill levels. Again the unit was lead by a highly experienced and capable comp supervisor. The use on our team of compositors at a wide range of skill levels, with a couple of old salts who knew green screen and shot aesthetics well, rounded out by a young motion graphic designer, allowed us to assign shots based on difficulty, design needs and so on. And again I could step in to advise or teach or do.

So, we had a simple production pipeline with a form suited to it's function: produce a large volume of material on a weekly basis with highly variant visual effects demands.

Secondary Pipeline: Data
Our coordinator managed the materials pipeline, which at our level of operation involved checking in assets from editorial and production and delivering product to editorial. I set-up a system using GOOGLE Docs spreadsheets to log assets needed, assets received and shots delivered and take status notes.

Between 3d and 2d we'd established a materials pipeline that wasn't very sophisticated: artists would log a shot ready for compositing and specify a database location code and compositors would pick up the work and mark it with a code indicating it had been picked up. One artist was assigned to A simple effective. And again this was communicated using the same GOOGLE docs database.

In addition, our "generalist-modeler" was tasked to collect and manage a database of re-usable models. At the same time, we tasked a couple of compositors to maintain our library of 2d assets.

Again I was intimately involved with this (and later we hired an I.T. Coordinator to help). So our data pipeline was in place.

Tertiary Pipeline: Direction and Approvals (or the data about the job)
Direction and approvals went through me. I set-up the GOOGLE docs system for tracking every show, and in this I logged all the shots, gave them a number and included the director's notes and script snippets. This was set-up so that a week or two ahead of need our coordinator would make a new show document and inform the director. After the first time working with us, about 90% of the directors were able to fill out this form before my first meeting, and would modify it during pre-production.

I would add my shot direction and my 3d and comp supervisors would add theirs. As shots were submitted, we used a tight naming system to code the internal approval level into the shot name. This system was designed so that the take delivered always referred back to a specific composition in a specific project file, and each 3d element referred back to the originating Maya file, to allow rapid identification of files for revision. Enforcing this naming convention was a continual effort of education and cajolery on my part assisted by the coordinators and other supervisors.

Change notes were communicated in the spreadsheet as well. While not foolproof, we made an effort to get all notes written down and communicated them orally as well. The pace and volume of work made formal dailies impossible, but on a daily basis shots were reviewed by the 3d supervisor, comp supervisor and myself. We encouraged directors to come in and would call and ask them to come in, but were generally too busy to chase them. Happily, almost no shot that made it past the other supervisors' and my eyes was ever bounced. So we had an approval pipeline that functioned.

Case Study 2:
Big shop, Long Job, Volume Business

Computer cubicles inside the Digital and Multi...

Another shop I worked for was very different. I want to get on to other things, so here is a summary:

Production Pipeline: Specialists in roto, wire removal, cleanup and tracking; specialists in modeling, animation, characters and dynamics; specialists in scripting and special programming needs; specialists in data management and film outs; specialists in green screen extraction, 2d tracking and generalist compositors and 3d animators. I forgot to mention specialists in storyboarding, design, character modeling, character rigging, texture UV layout, texture painting, researchers, lighting and shaders. Plus coordinators, CG supervisor, Roto supervisor, etc. About 25-30 job descriptions and about a staff of 150 working on two or three films.
This shop was geared up to handle about a dozen or two shot sequences, comprising anywhere from eight to 40 shots, with similar shot needs in each sequence. Production turn-around for a film with 300 or so shots ordered was about eight months.
Data Pipeline: tell a coordinator where things are
Approval Pipeline: dailies

The Two Pipelines
We need a pipeline!

An icon from the Crystal icon theme.Image via Wikipedia

Getting back to the story: so he says to me, "We need a pipeline!"
Of course I dismissed the suggestion, which wasn't the best way to handle it, but that's a story for another day. The point is, we already had a fully functional pipeline.

My shop #1 is engineered for a low budget operation with flexibility in mind. Another small shop that specializes in a particular kind of work might find a different pipeline more to their advantage.

For example, a shop producing over a four month period 500 or so shots with 3d vfx of WWII aircraft and warships in the Pacific theater will need and be able to get advantages out of a more specialized pipeline than we employed. The mission of shop #1 is to support a science variety show, and the range of topics is immense. One week they are animating black holes, another constellations and another depicting exploration of Mars. They have hypothetical animals one week, and volcanoes the next. The work needs were unpredictable; the shop making airplanes had predictable needs.

Likewise, shop #2, making feature films, was able to achieve specialization because the volume of work included a significant amount of essentilly repetitious shots. At the same time, the volume of work allowed them to have at least one and ususally several persons expert in almost any specialization. And, at the same time, the length of projects and the overlap of several films, allowed them to maintain a pool of talent with a large variety of skills and experience, providing indirectly generalization and directly labor economy. Further, the shop was big enough to have more coordinators than I could count, so the details of their material and approval pipelines were hidden from artists. (Today, more reliance is made on technology to coordinate these pipelines.)

Masai Giraffe

follows Function

Your job, as a CG Supervisor, is to understand the function first and design a pipeline to fit: remember form follows function. The idea that some people have that a pipeline comprised of specialists is not the best solution in every situation. Just as the giraffe has a long neck to reach the highest leaves, your CG pipeline must follow the form that gives you the most efficient and effective solution to the work you need to do. In some situations, the best solution is a team with diverse capabilities and a leader able to create ad hoc pipelines using those talents to get special problems solved. In other situations, an assembly line of specialists will be more effective.

One size does not fit all.

---Happy Pixels!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

#0018 Understanding Pipelines

Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline
Deconstructing the "pipeline"
Among your key responsibilities as a Computer Graphics Supervisor may be the design or implementation of a CG pipeline.  Even if you do not design one, you will manage one, and as the pipeline manager your concern will be to keep it running efficiently.  Further, even if you do not design the pipeline you manage, you will be accountable to management to insure the pipeline design and staff capabilities are most appropriate for current needs.
Your task will be compounded by a very simple problem: jargon.  The word "pipeline" is a rather meaningless term.  Like so many terms in computer graphics, it has been adopted from some other discipline and the word crafted to mean something for a specific situation.  You will soon find that there is little literature on the subject and that the word "pipeline" means different things within computer graphics to different people.
Case in point:  I'm sitting across the table discussing an employee's recommendation that we need a "pipeline", a recommendation he's made to myself and my boss, who wants to know why we don't have one.  As I sit there, I'm thinking about how anyone could think our crew of 10-20 artists could have spent the last 12 months making around 1800 vfx shots without a very functional pipeline.  Perhaps, I think, he wants a change in the pipeline he's been part of for 12 months?  So I ask him what he means, and he begins describing an asset management system....

Description unavailable

The term "pipeline" may seem to be a term grounded in the antiquity of computer graphics if you've only been around a few years, but it is a rather recent bit of jargon, introduced 10-12 years ago.  The word "pipeline" replaced "workflows", which in turn replaced the terms "cg process" and "cg production phases" around 20 years ago.  The change in terminology has both opened and constricted our thinking about visual effects production processes and the people who make them happen.

The term "pipe" was introduced in computer jargon with the development of UNIX.  A UNIX pipe is an input-output data structure that eliminates the need for program A to write a stream of data to a file that will be read and processed by program B.  Instead, the operating system command line language allowed the insertion of a pipe symbol, which meant, "connect the output of program A to program B", skipping writing the file to save time and disk space.  
A few years later, a young company making a computer optimized for graphics, Silicon Graphics, designed and sold graphics processors using a "pipeline" concept.  Essentially, the graphics engine developed by SGI encapsulated in hardware, at a great speed advantage, the UNIX concept of piping the data through a series of simply written modules making a series of small operations into a significant result.
Over time the concept of moving computer data through a series of software modules would get translated into a work process involving progressing the work product through a series of specialized workers (who happen to use node-based software and other technologies all based on the software pipe concept).  And so "CG process" became "CG workflows" and these became "CG pipelines"....

Back to my employee meeting.  His answer got me to think about pipelines differently.  For some time I had been thinking of the pipeline in a very narrow sense, as a type of CG  work-flow or description of the CG process.  Suddenly I saw that a pipeline could be the flow of any kind of data, not just the flow of our work product, and that the CG pipeline we used consisted of a multitude of different classes of pipelines that touched one another in places.  In an instant, concepts I was thoroughly familiar with became redefined and reorganized.  Like parallel universes, pipelines coexisted within my production environment in different dimensions of perspective.
    The Three Pipelines
Computer cubicles inside the Digital and Multi...

The Production Pipeline
The traditional way of thinking about a pipeline is the production pipeline.  This is essentially modeled after post-industrial assembly systems where workers specialize in a given task.  The assembly line is a such a system where the work product moves past a series of work stations at a fixed speed, forcing each specialty to be constrained to a fixed duration and narrow set of skills.   Computer graphics is unlikely to achieve the efficiency of Henry Ford's automated line, but the concept of specialization has been embraced. We can take advantage of the phased nature of CG production --model construction, motion construction, lighting, shading, rendering and compositing to break up the work.  The degree of specialization of a pipeline is a subject for some study: not all work missions will support the same production pipeline profile.
The Materials (Or Data) Pipeline
Every CG environment involves the delivery of a product, a shot, a sequence or a complete show.  Along the way assets are gathered and intermediate assets or work products are constructed.  Assets used as inputs may include footage, stills, and reference materials.  One person's output becomes the next person's input.  Hence the pipe-line.  Managing the flow of materials through a shop is an important sub-pipeline, in fact it's really a corollary pipeline.  
The Approval (Or Metadata) Pipeline
A key material in any pipeline comprises the aggregate of direction and instructions about a particular work product (again, a shot or element of a shot at the finest level).  Managing this data involves collecting, organizing and distributing the information to the right persons.  Because it involves a decision loop, the approval pipeline is itself a looped pipeline with an iterative nature.  
Other Pipelines
Adjacent to these may be other pipelines, but these are the essential three.  The first is labor; the second is the data used  or made by labor; and the third is the metadata, the data about the data.  Any other pipelines are special cases of one of these three.  For example, a film-out pipeline is a special case of a production pipeline.  A rendering pipeline is a part of the production pipeline. A material check-in procedure is a sub-set of a materials pipeline.  A sign-off procedure is a part of an approval pipeline. A payroll system is a meta-data pipeline that collects and processes information approving compensation for the work done.
The Integrated Pipeline
The degree that these three pipelines are brought together can determine how synergistic the entire operation is.  In many operations, these three pipelines exist more or less in isolation.  In some operations, the piepline is highly computerized.  In others, the data may be managed through slips of paper, whiteboards or your gray matter as supervisor.  While products exist to help manage the data and meta-data pipeline, these depend on a solid foundation of procedure and conventions.
The Best Pipeline
The question is, what is the best pipeline?  The answer is simple: the most appropriate one.  Some people hear a bit of buzz about the pipeline at shop ABC, and think that everyone should organize the same way.  Or they hear some marketing hype about a wonderful asset management system or project tracking application, and they are all hot for it.  Your job as a CG Supervisor is to help management sort through the noise and recommend the most appropriate pipeline to satisfy the short-term job at hand and the long-term realities of your company.  A pipeline that may be perfectly beautiful and elegant is worthless if it does not fit your company's needs.  Analyzing those needs and weighing your options is another story.
Thanks for joining us today.
Now go make some pretty pictures!