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.