Monday, June 29, 2009

#0004 The Human Face of CG: personalities and personal needs

What I want to convey in this blog is something that I see nowhere else. Now perhaps I'm not looking hard enough, but what I tend to see is about 90% focus on technology and tools and maybe 10% on aesthetics and 0% on the human factor in computer graphics. If we look at all the forums available, (and who has time do do that), I very much doubt any one of them looks at the human side, the management side of producing computer graphics. That's why I've stepped up to the plate.

As a CG supervisor, it is really easy to focus in on the aesthetics and technicalities of shot production and pipeline management. But your job is more than that. In my role as department head of CGFX at Flight 33 Productions, I wore the triple hats of producer, vfx supervisor and cg supervisor. At times I was the IT manager, the Art Director, and every now and then the janitor. But the most challenging aspect of my job was actually dealing with the human issues.

If you think I am talking about human resources, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Sure, advertising, interviewing, hiring, and reviewing staff took a bit of time; sometimes too big a chunk. (If you're in a big shop, the personnel department does a bit of this for you.) But the real challenge is dealing with the two P's: personalities and personal issues.

Unless you're a shot lead or a CG supervisor with only technical responsibilities (and then who decided to give you a supervisor title?), the two P's will challenge your patience and test your ability to think on your feet and excercise clear, mature judgment. Without causing more problems or getting your boss on your back or an attorney on his.

Now, this is not a psych blog, so if you want to get into an analysis of personality types, profiles and the like I encourage you to look elsewhere. The search terms, "personality types in the workplace" popped 298,000 hits on GOOGLE. I particularly found the "7 Basic Styles of Workplace Behavior" interesting, which classifies workers as Commanders, Drifters, Attackers, Pleasers, Performers, Avoiders and Analyticals. This website summarizes the ideas of Francie Dalton.

My experience is that you'll be cruising through your daily routine of reminding people of objectives, answering 10,000 questions (a slow day), troubleshooting issues you'd think the staff would know (after all we are paying these people!), and suddenly someone will pop in your face, usually with a cloudy face that can only mean someone ate their lunch or the world is coming to an end, and ask to talk with you "as soon as possible".

Usually, at this point, now is a good time to talk to the person. If you don't, you'll find you are distracted all day by the image of that face and the ominous tone of doom. If you don't the worker will probably be distracted all day wondering why the hell you don't care enough about them for a five minute chat. If you don't the worker will most likely fester, may grow to resent you, the company and the entire race of supervisors and all we stand for, and will at some point begin to tell everyone who will lesson what a poor boss you are and how they're world is being destroyed by your incompetence. Whatever you do, don't let them go home with this attitude.

So you talk to the person. I suggest you do your very best to listen. While you are listening to the person, I want you to set aside what your doing and listen. But that's not enough, you need to one more thing. You need to listen.

Listening is not absorbing information with your ears and then making a decision and fixing the problem. Listening is listening only. At this point all you should be doing is listening. Now, don't listen in silence and don't be an impassive wall of stone. People have feelings, so listen and reflect to the person you are listening. If you don't know how to listen, take a minute and get on the internet. (If you want to be a better manager, now's a good time to just admit that no matter how good you are, you can be a better listener.) GOOGLE returns over 30 million hits when I give it "the art of listening". So listen up, and make it clear you are listening.

There's a few simple techniques that you can do, if you don't do these automatically: 1) say your listening and mutter things like "go on", "yes" and other encouraging words; 2) let your body relax and be empathetic; 3) when appropriate, ask clarifying questions; 4) don't interrupt; 5) don't react (especially don't get angry or impatient); 6) repeat what was said and ask if you got it right. Listen until there's nothing more.

When the person finishes talking, sometimes they will expect an immediate response or solution. Most of the time they will expect you to respond right away. Please resist the temptation. Unless it is something simple, like "I have a doctor's appointment because my cat died and it upset my grandmother's dog who ate my goldfish and the stress is giving me hives," you need time to consider your response. At this point, even if you have a response I suggest you wait a bit and give it some more thought.

Suppose the person is asking for vacation time in six months and wants to buy tickets now to get the best rates, or needs to book reservations now because it's a popular spot. Get the details about the issue that you need to know --when, how long. And get the details about what is important for you to make a humane decision --when is a decision needed by? Then take your time and consider what is good for the company, good for the team, good for your sanity, good for morale and good for your employee. It may be good for the employee to let them make a reservation six months in the future, but can you even guess what you will need then? And how will other employees feel if they learn you gave someone a vacation pass so far in advance?

Whatever it is, consider your answer well. Eventually it comes down to the human level --in this example, giving the employee the time off can be managed, you just need to find some vacation relief or get others to cover the work.

Not all issues will be this easy. Sometimes, too often, it will involve something petty or some backbiting or even worse, a personal conflict between workers on your staff. But before you act, think. Remember, your job is to get the job done, and, if practical, keep the team together for the next one.

#0003 What makes a shot succeed

For today's post, I thought we'd look at an unpublished piece I intended for an audience of CG artists producing shots for a television show. It remains generally applicable.

The piece is the beginning of a discourse on a larger issue, the essential qualities of a good shot, or put another way, the aesthetics of visual effects and commercial graphics. I have found as a cg supervisor it is easy to show someone a method or technology. But conveying an aesthetic vision is much more difficult and often meets with resistance. I believe decomposing the issues will help artists to understand that aesthetic decisions by supervisors are rarely arbitrary.

What makes a shot succeed
Sometimes, looking at a shot, it seems some artists believe that a shot gets approved because the clock has run out and their work fills the hole adequately. Experience in the on line edit bay shows that a shot that fills the hole 'adequately' may not be acceptable in some essential aspect of storytelling, concept, composition, style, production value, or aesthetic execution. Failing in one or more adequacies can often lead to delivery delays while a shot is reworked. Worse, the work may be cut from the show –a waste of effort and resources, or both. As artists, we must work to make our shots succeed in all essential criteria. Our professionalism and artistic spirit should drive us to exceed acceptable.

Some artists, trained in their tools and the process, lack basic design education. Some may have only a basic high school or elementary art education. Excellent trade schools may give students superior training in using specific software and know-how to construct 'representative' projects. But some workers in the computer graphics craft lack any formal instruction in the elements of shot design and aesthetics. As a result they struggle to build satisfactory shots and have trouble evaluating their aesthetic sense. In short, they lack “an eye” from which to pre-envision the results of a task and know when it works. Together, this leads to overworked shots and shots that don't succeed.

The artist who can intuit what a shot needs –who has vision and 'the eye' is rises from being an artistic worker to become an artist. Our goal is to help you begin your journey to find the artist you can be.

One could approach this task with a set of design rules. This is efficient if we want to hire a bunch of computer graphics technologists to do specific, tightly designed shots, with little or no artistic contribution on their part. Sounds like the job from hell for both the supervisor and the artists.

Let's remember that computer graphics is an art form. Like all art forms, it is the human component that makes it art, that helps it succeed. An artist must think and feel for his work, and while technical controls may help with collaboration and keep a pipeline fluid, they do not compel good art.

The expression, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” may seem a cliché , but when it comes to getting a shot approved –the ultimate test of whether it succeeds or not –it's an axiom of all graphics professions. So let's consider how the beholders we work with behold our work:

Expanding Your Viewpoint

Before we construct the essential elements of shot design, let's expand our artistic horizon. It's obvious many people collaborate to make a shot work. Considering how each person conceives and receives a shot from their role will help us to better enumerate the criteria of the successful shot. In fact, it's crucial to understanding.

Without attempting to include every detail, let's look at those of likely importance.

The 3d artist
First take the view of the typical 3d artist is looking at details like geometric form, camera, texture, light, movement and effects. Due to specialization, some artists become proficient with certain details while others remain essentially blind. For example, a great modeler may, looking at an object, see how well the virtual form succeeds to replicate a real object. The modeler may appreciate the flow and break of the surface form and the technical details like limb curve smoothness, intricate detail, data efficiency and so on. At the same time the artist could be completely blind to how to light the object to show off these details to best effect, establish mood, focus attention and so forth –all second nature to the lighting artist.

The compositor
The technical viewpoint of the compositor is fixed on how well the elements integrate with one another as good graphic composition or good visual effects. The compositor is looking at details like blending, color, contrast, and so forth, with the main object to integrate objects into the scene and focus attention where needed and pull it away from problems. This idea of attention is important, and relates to the duty of the compositor to compose good images, or compositions, that work in the 3 dimensional canvas –-horizontal, vertical and time. While with effort and skill a good artist can improve or save a shot with poor assets, this compositor's view of what makes a good shot depends entirely on the quality of the resources given.

The director
The director represents and interprets the goals and desires of the production executive. If the director is not also the writer, he also interprets and refines the vision of the writer. As such one of the main areas of concern for the director is how the visuals work to support the written story and any implied stories. The director is looking for how singularly and collectively the visuals work to move the viewer in some way –a documentary may move the viewer to understanding; an entertainment introduces characters, propels the viewer through the plot, and evokes an emotional response. Documentaries with a 'wow!' factor will usually have a stronger entertainment essence, often accomplished by engaging the viewer with intellectually and emotionally exciting visuals. When the director plans and evaluates a sequence –and many directors think in sequences rather than shots –the object is to carry the story and stimulate the intellect and emotions. Story and visual interest (WOW!) go far in the director's assessment of what makes a shot work.

The editor
The editor plays an important role to achieve the vision of the executive. Like the director, the editor is concerned with efficiently and effectively telling the story and moving the viewer. Clarity of concepts, visual presence or production value, visual interest, beauty, composition, motion, pacing are all areas an editor may look at in addition to raw story support. The editor bears some responsibility for maintaining production studio standards and style continuity within a show and between episodes in a series. In addition, the editor has to consider the technical quality of the visuals: do they contain video or visual artifacts, distracting lens artifacts, inappropriately sharp or soft and so forth. Among other things an important aspect of the editor's job is to make sure shot continuity is maintained or deliberately abandoned, for example to avoid a jarring jump cut or to suggest a change of place or time. Online editors will be looking at color and contrast issues, technical quality, and audio synchronization with picture among other things. A great many factors effect the judgment of the editor on whether a shot works or must be replaced.

The executive
Ultimately, the executive determines whether a shot works. The production studio executive, who is making and selling a product to a network executive, will focus on the big picture and the minutia –encompassing all suitability criteria of those under his supervision and anticipating the criteria of the customer, who, as the saying goes, is always right. For the studio executive, how the network perceives the show in terms of production value (bang for the buck), potential audience response, network standards, and so forth are all important criteria. Shots require good design and good execution with strong support of the audio and storyline. Shots must be free of technical flaws, distractions from story, unbelievable motion, and so forth.

For better and for worse
While responsibility for making a shot in motion graphics or visual effects falls on the 3d artist and the compositor, neither the compositor's nor the 3d artist's natural viewpoint will guarantee a great shot. Each can help make the difference between a well executed and poorly executed shot. Take this in objectively –the natural considerations of importance to the 3d artist or compositor with excellent technical skills but limited design skills and aesthetic experience can only help make a shot better (given the same effort). A poor technician will struggle to make the shot as good, given the same direction, tools and time.

So at the level of the compositor thinking like a compositor or the modeler thinking like a modeler or the lighter thinking like a lighter all the artist can do is elevate a poor shot or drag down a good shot.

This is because the essence of a good shot depends on much more –good design and good aesthetic judgment. For any of us to rise above the level of artistic technician and really earn the title 'artist', we must acquire the knowledge and practice the skills of design and aesthetic judgment.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

#0002 Tools of the Trade

There are well over a 100 different software applications used in visual effects and motion graphics today. Wikipedia lists around 70 packages for 3d work alone. Clearly, the CG supervisor must be proficient in one or more of the major packages and knowledgeable in several others. Invariably, the CG supervisor will be working with artists using software outside his technical sphere and invariably, given the rapid pace of new development and upgrades, this could include new versions of software the supervisor has used in the past. Expecting the CG supervisor to know every tool of the trade is unrealistic. As a CG supervisor you need to know how to supervise the use of tools you may not be expert in.

Obviously, as time permits, you should become knowledgeable in the tools used by your team. But learning new tools may be something you have very little time for. Even so, there are some steps you can take.

Don't Fake It
Resist the temptation to brazen your way through the situation with the pretense you know the software. This will not work and will, and should, get you in a heap of trouble. Be forthright in admitting you are not capable in the software package. If you don't, all you'll be doing is raising false expectations about your skills and knowledge. Remember, you were hired to supervise the artists who were hired to use the tools.

Pick Your Expert
Find one or two people on your staff who know the software well. These will be your go-to people if you get stuck. If there is no such person, you need to get one hired right away if the software is mission critical. If it's not mission critical, then the issue is moot. So we are talking here about software that is needed now or in the immediate future to get the job done. So make sure you have a go-to guy on the staff.

Learn the ABC's of your software tools
Find out first the applications of your software --what is it good for? Your experts can usually fill you in within the first five minutes. A little internet research will help if you need more information. Next, look into the capabilities of the software --what can it do? The difference between application and capability is this: application is about when you would want to use it and capability is about what you can expect to accomplish. For example, Blastcode is a great application for making things blow up or break apart. It's capabilities include taking an object and shattering it into big chunks, blowing out small pieces of debris hidden inside models, causing objects nearby to be effected, adding secondary explosive effects and dust, and so on and on. Finally, you need to understand the basic operation of the software --what is the workflow and the typical turnaround time, what data goes in to get the result, and what is the form of that result? For example, Blastcode works within Maya, so the inputs would include tyhe geometry to be blasted, objects to be ejected, the textures, etc. etc. The outputs would usually be a baked simulation.

Delegate, review and amend
Now that you understand the ABC's of the software, you are ready to start supervising. At this point you should follow the standard cycle of delegation, review of work and amending takes until the results are acceptable. We'll examine this workflow in another post in detail, but there are subtle but important issues to consider when you are not the expert in the software.

First, when delegating, you will need to consult one of your experts (who may be the artist but may not be) about the estimated production time and the workflow. Be sure you understand how this shot will be accomplished. Don't assume it follows the basic workflow, it just might be a special case, and you don't want to be learning that four days into a five day cycle, do you? If the artist assigned is not your expert, you should also discuss the same issues with the artist. You can do this with the expert present or not, depending on your comfort level with the subject and your supervisory relationship. Remember, you are the leader and your team expects you to be in control, not your expert.

Second, when reviewing, you need to consider the time required to make whatever changes you may see are needed. You may tempted to assume the changes are easy when they are not, and not being the expert, how can you really know? When you don't know, you need to ask, but before you do, prioritize your changes. What is critical, what is not? This should be standard in a review process, but because you are not an expert, you need to be more aware of this.

Finally, when asking for amendments, you will now need to ask again about time and production workflow. This is also a time to ask if there is some compromise that can be made to achieve the look (you should also ask this when delegating) or some alternate method. Perhaps by breaking down the problem into layers and compositing you can make a difficult challenge more easy. Or maybe instead of fixing some componet you make mattes and get it fixed again in the comp. Look for efficiencies and be flexible.

Troubleshooting is about experience
Sooner or later you will encounter a situation where your artist does not know how to get what you want from the software or cannot get the software to work as expected. You're the supervisor and you have to keep things moving. So you can call on your expert, and should if that's expedient, but remember your job is much about solving problems. So work the problem like any other, except you will have to ask more questions.

While supervising LIFE AFTER PEOPLE at Flight 33, I encountered a problem where the artist could not get the water motion I desired using Maya Unlimited fluids, an aspect of the program outside my hands-on experience. So the first thing I did is I asked him to open the Attribute Editor and read off to me the names of the attributes one by one. I delibaretly stayed out of his chair, because it's about supervising, not taking over. Most of the attribute names made sense to me, I have worked with wave deformers since before the word "deformer" was invented, so I was able to direct them. Once in a while he would come to one I did not know and I asked what the attribute controlled. Not surprisingly, my "expert" did not know the meaning of all the attributes! (This is, by the way, an all too common problem.) Within a few minutes we had the basic settings changed to get the right effect and a 15 minute test confirmed it.

You are the leader
As you can see, the supervisor needs to know how to dissect a problem and needs to know the principles of the art, not every tool. As the leader, you need to invest some time in learning the tools beyond the ABC's:

On a long project you should take the time to read the release notes for the application version in use. Don't just do this for the apps you don't know, do it also for the apps you know well. Re-read the release notes, troubleshooting notes, new features and basic feature summaries often. If you read these 5-7 times over a 12 month period they should be firmly fixed in your mind. Talk about these notes with the experts and artists using the tool will help them stay on the edge and will encourage them to read the notes also (many artists just open upgrades and start poking around).

As time permits, you should open the application and poke around the menus. If more time is available, or the mission requires you to have a deeper knowledge, invest time in tutorials.

Finally, find out where the user community is for the application and find yourself a super-expert outside the organization you can email, chat or phone for the crisis beyond your staff's experience. It could save your job.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

#0001 The art of CG supervision

Any time a group of digital artists are brought together to collaborate on a project, some leadership system needs to be established. With a small group of experienced professionals, this may be negotiated leadership, where peers through casual discussion reach a consensus on who will be responsible for what, how it will get done, what resources are needed and when it will be completed. This is a rare occurrence --I've seen it once. More commonly, a leadership hierarchy of some sort is established.

For management, the hiring of leadership allows a narrow focal point for the flow of information between the team and executives. It fixes some degree of accountability. It provides for a simple communication flow. Imagine if every director, producer or executive had to take time to explain policy, procedure or visual goals to every artist. In a small shop this may be possible, but not in a large shop. The difference is that the functions of the CG supervisor are in one case carried by the executive, producer or director and in the other they are separated out.

For artists, a big benefit of a CG supervisor is the translation and expansion of information. We'll examine this in detail in a later post. For now, what I mean by "translation" is the task of re-interpreting the oral direction of a director, who may be focused on story and abstract concepts, into meaningful and specific instructions in the jargon of the artist. "Expansion" refers to the task of amplifying the simple instructions given by a director into the many details necessary to get the job done.

Another huge benefit for artists comes from the abilities of the CG supervisor to provide aesthetic and technical guidance and mentoring to the staff. The CG supervisor, in amplifying the vision of the VFX supervisor, director or producer is often also applying an aesthetic vision or style. Sometimes the CG supervisor mainly conveys and reinforces the artistic vision of these other collaborators or the art director, and sometimes the CG supervisor provides this aesthetic vision within the guidelines established by his supervisor.

Many people look at the CG supervisor as the senior technical person on the project. While in some cases this may be true, it is not a requisite. Usually the CG supervisor will be generally more technical than the artists under his (or her) supervision, but may be less technical in narrow aspects of expertise. Even so, the CG supervisor should know the technical aspects of the art better than most and must be particularly adept at solving problems. Key to this is knowing how to extract technical information from the experts on his staff in order to guide their hand in making aesthetic and efficiency decisions.

In the end the CG supervisor is the expert in managing the process. This involves so many things beyond what this post can cover. Just preparing this first post I had over 200 topics in mind --and many of these will take multiple posts.

Whom is this blog for? It is for everyone involved in the CG process, also called Computer Graphics, digital media, visual effects, motion graphics, and the like. When I was in college it was still all lumped together as commercial graphics (as opposed to fine art). Arguably today, many of the works of art produced by CG artists are very fine arts: case in point the many excellent animated films and visual effects masterpieces.

This blog is intended for the CG artist, who wants to understand the goals and objectives of CG production better, the asethetic decision making process, the technical pipeline. The "Art of CG Supervision" is aimed at obviously at persons with the title, "CG Supervisor", but also the CG coordinator and CG producer and the VFX supervisor who work closely as part of the CG leadership team. Then there are the technical directors, the lighting supervisors, compositing supervisors, the roto supervisors, the paint leads, the 3d supervisor, the model lead, the supervisor in training. The title does not make a difference --in some way these talented people are all part of the Art of CG supervision.

Some may ask why I am qualified to write this blog. Let me give you some of my personal background: I first became interested in graphics and team leadership in the early 1970's. By the late 70's my first job was working as a production assistant at a print graphics house where I operated a headline generating computer. Within a few years I was the first staff artist on the first paint system sold worldwide --unit 1 of the Aurora 100. By the end of the year I was one of the first artists using the world's first commercial 3d system --the Bosch FGS 4000. We had the 3rd machine sold in the world. I started as Art Director and when we went into 3d and expanded into two departments (2d and 3d) I became the 3d supervisor. I was bidding, planning, meeting with clients, story-boarding and mentoring other artists. Soon I was supervising edit sessions integrating the graphics into video.

After leaving that company --where I produced animation, motion graphics and visual effects for such Night Rider, Airwolf, Press Your Luck, Max Headroom, Star Trek the Next Generation, and a host of main titles; received an Emmy --I soon launched into film cg supervision. Readers may remember the films The Shadow, Immortal Beloved, and Mortal Kombat. Between film projects I did independent work, at times building an ad hoc production company for a single project. By the millennium, I had started a boutique company and managed sub contractors to get projects done. Most recently I built from an empty room a complete CG department for an HD documentary company in one month --within a year the department was working on five major projects at once and producing about 100 shots a week in HD.

Over the years I've worn the hats of the art director, shot lead, render supervisor, comp supervisor, 3d supervisor, CG supervisor, VFX supervisor, producer and CGFX department manager. In the last job I found myself everything at once. I've supervised, trained and mentored artists and other supervisors. I've designed pipelines and material tracking systems and archival systems and approval systems.

This blog will explore these topics like no other resource I can find on the internet today. I do not believe anyone is talking about CG supervision on the internet. There appear to be no books devoted to the subject; to my knowledge one cannot take college courses in the subject or make this an emphasis in one's major. The CG supervisor today learns on the job.

This blog will explore the art, the science and technology of CG supervision. I hope you will join me in the pursuit of excellence.