Welcome to Issue 17
Visual effects can be hailed as the first inspiration for quite a few science fiction/fantasy digital artists. It inspires them to take the first steps in setting up their own “studio” to create similarly stirring images. Years ago the bar for this was incredibly high. Today the bar is much lower, with hardware and software available for many to create their own productions. One great example of this is motion graphic designer Billy Hanshaw from Leeds who posted an example of his work on YouTube. Resulting from this he had a very surprising telephone call from the Doctor Who production team. They wanted to use his work as the new opening title sequence for the programme. Billy thought it was a trick or a wind-up, but his original work was used, with a few additions by the BBC visual effects department. Billy used ideas of surrealism from the Dutch artist Escher and made an attractive sequence from his home based studio.
Tobias Richter owner of the Light Works has learned to produce high quality effects on a relatively small budget, compared to the large VFX houses. It’s certainly helped that they initially did a lot of computer games cut scenes and intros. This experience provided the foundation for doing visual effects work for a wide variety of TV and game projects from Star Trek to the new Oceanus. Discover in our interview with Tobias how he converted his passion of computer graphics and sci-fi into a fully fledged business.
We’ve also interviewed Greg Teegarden, CG supervisor at Digital Domain, who was in the right time and right place for his break into the industry in 1992, when it was still in its infancy, being embryonic at that point. If you knew how to turn on the computer and you had some artistic ability, they were willing to train you! Now in the present, it’s as much as being consistent in publishing your work into the public domain and honing your talent. Breakthroughs are certainly still possible into getting your work known and published.
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We talk with the lighting designer of one of the finest sci-fi sequences ever filmed — the Light Jet battle in Tron: Legacy.
MOVIE & TV | VFX & CG
“…. in the Tron: Legacy Light Jet sequence, there wasn’t any kind of established lighting — we’re in this dark, dusky, cloudy, misty environment — and we have no idea how we’re gonna light this thing…”
Tobias is a German Maya expert who has worked on a wide variety of TV series, games and movie pre-production projects.
3D MODELS | MAYA
“… once you build a physical model, you know how things work, how they look in ‘real’ … you know that when two elements join together … they have a certain edge and a certain quality to the buildup.”
Phil has created a major fan-work combining his voice with film music. Just add the ultimate cinema tool — your imagination!
CLIP STUDIO | PS | VOICE
“… I tried as best I could to dramatize every chapter one by one. The experience was riveting, because it was always an adventure finding out what or how you could make something feel and sound”.
and the IMAGINARIUM
Sample Interview from Issue 17
3D MODELS | MAYA
DAL: Tobias, welcome. I’ve seen a picture of you in your studio, which is a little corner of sci-fi paradise. You have an excellent collection of physical models you’ve made, which appear to represent pretty much every sci-fi TV series or film you could think of. Lots of Star Trek. I also noticed in the picture an AT-AT Walker from The Empire Strikes Back. Everything from that, to the ‘Discovery’ from 2001. And there’s lots of Star Trek artwork on your walls. So, I’m pretty jealous of where you work. Tell me a little bit about your working environment. Was it so lavishly decorated when you started out?
Tobias: Not exactly, no. But since I spend a lot of time in the office, I like to make it as comfortable as possible. And building models or having models around me is one of my hobbies that predated the computer. So, I started building models when I was very little. And that hobby got forgotten, for some time. But I rediscovered it — and started with bigger models that the so-called “studio scale models”! They are basically the same scale as the model that they used when they were filming these movies. And then, the collection just started.
I’ve built the models for, let’s say, about 10 years now. Three or four models each year. So, we have a certain amount of models. But I haven’t built all of these models. The more expensive kits, I’ve given to some friends of mine who are much better than I am of this craft. And they built it up for me and they’re really great. And it’s a very cool inspiration. If you just look at these models, you get so much information and so much enjoyment and inspiration for them, it’s really cool.
DAL: So, I imagine they’re really useful references for when you do some work. And you may have a brand new design/spaceship in front of you on your screen, on your monitor. And then you might think “Oh, I wonder if I tweak it a little bit like this, like this ship that I have a model of in my studio and make something a little bit like this detail.” Is that how it can help you sometimes.
Tobias: Sometimes, yes. Building all those models gives you a certain perspective how things work or how things look good, how to build things that look functional yet stylish. This certainly helps a lot. If I build something new, I always tend to look at my models and see or take certain details and try to incorporate them into the new model to make it more believable.
DAL: Do you think the physical model-making process has helped you in the process of creating virtual models?
Tobias: I think so. Because once you build a physical model, you know how things work, how they look in “real.” They’re still models, but they are representing the real world. So, if you know if two elements join together, they do not just stick together. They have a certain edge and a certain quality to the buildup. And this all helps a lot with the digital modeling as well.
DAL: I just wonder whether that’s part of every visual effects artist would benefit from physical model building. I just wonder whether that’s included in any courses or any skill sets that they should have. It’s probably worth it, isn’t it?
Tobias: I would think so. I don’t think anybody will do that or any course will offer that. But it would definitely be helpful though it’s not a necessity.
DAL: Now, how did The Light Works start and what inspired you to put the idea of the company into action?
Tobias: Well, it was a very slow start. I was studying computer science a long time ago. And I started with some friends of mine and we did our first computer game for the Amiga back then. And I did all for the graphics for that.
Additionally, I worked for a production studio in Cologne during the occasion of doing the study. And decided to move after the studying and work for them as a freelancer. And from then on, it just built up. I was working for a couple of years alone. Then I got my first employee but the amount of work was so much, and it has been building up since then.
DAL: How many employees do you have now?
Tobias: Now, we are up to four. But there were times when we got up to eight or nine people. Just depending on how much work we had to do.
DAL: Am I right in saying it grew not just from a hobby, but also, from your computer science background? That’s where it stemmed from? Tobias: And the funny part is, I never actually used the computer science study. I mean, I finished the study, but I never actually did any work in that. It certainly helped a little bit during stuff like scripting and my understanding of how a program works. But I never programmed anything big in my career just for a hobby, sometimes. So, it sort of deviated from my original plan, my life plan.
DAL: Because I did computer science as well. Because it was in the early ’90s, it didn’t actually have a course or a module to do with 3D graphics. So, I missed out. If I had been born a bit later, then I could have done something.
Tobias: Yeah, I had the luck to study in Darmstadt, Germany. And they had a so-called “Center for Graphical Data Analysis.” So, a little bit on the top of the times at that moment. So, that helped certainly a little bit. But it was completely different to what I was doing at home on my Amiga and completely different from what I was doing later on. It was at least a little bit in the right direction.
DAL: In that time period, I think schools and universities were trying to catch up with the microcomputer revolution.
Tobias: I had the luck back then that I was the first one in my school back then that got access to a computer. We originally were learning CAD drawing, by hand-drawing. And then, the school got this new computer for the course – so we got access to this. That was my introduction to the computer. And it took off from that.
DAL: Now, you’ve learned to produce high quality effects on a small budget, I imagine. Which, yet are comparable to the large effects, houses, which you must be very proud of. What are a few things that have helped you make this achievement, apart from just sheer, hard work?
Tobias: Thanks. I think it’s like a gap between the larger effects houses. But we try to do our very best. It certainly helped that we did a lot of stuff for computer games. A lot of cut scenes, intros and that kind of stuff. Which is pretty similar to what you have to do for visual effects work.
And the budgets for that are very small. So, you have to come up with a very effective way to do things. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m able to do these things. And the other thing is we don’t have a big overhead. It’s just me and a couple of my artists. So, it’s a very direct way to do things. And all this, I think, adds up to what we’re doing.
DAL: So, it’s the discipline of doing visual effects for games that’s helped you get to that point where you could sort of, well, not compete directly with the larger effects houses, but certainly get towards what they’re doing?
Tobias: I think so. It certainly helped a lot to get the most effective way to do things.
DAL: Now, what are the main software applications in your tool set? And do you wish you had come across some of these tools at an earlier stage, had you known about them?
Tobias: Our 3D main tool is Maya. It always has been with us from the start. In fact, when I was first starting on the Amiga, there was some German software. And then, on some Amiga show, some guy from Alias Wavefront came to me and offered me to buy his software back then. It was one of the most expensive and most used software for visual effects. And it was incredibly expensive; I had no idea how I managed to pay that off. I bought a Silicon Graphics workstation with the software and used it from that day on. And a few years later, this Alias Wavefront software became Maya.
So, I’ve been using Maya from basically day one. And the other software includes Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. Sometimes, we also use Zbrush for any organic stuff.