(Mechanised) Hands up if you haven’t heard of Transformers? OK, pretty unlikely as we’ve all seen the undeniably amazing work by ILM on the Transformers franchise, but in this blog post we take a lengthy look at the explosive 3ds Max work of Joel LeLièvre, a CG Supervisor and Visual Effects Artist. Back in 2011, Joel was lucky enough to be involved with Transformers 3, Dark Of The Moon (DOTM). Luckily for us, Joel took some time out of his busy schedule to share some insight into this visual feast, (which remains one of my favourite movies.)
However, before we look at the sequences he has constructed, let’s take a moment to find out more about the man behind the mass destruction. From there we will explore various aspects of the VFX world, including taking a peek at a typical day, as well as looking at what he would recommend to someone wishing to make it in the VFX industry.
Joel is currently operating out of his home studio in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, part of beautiful Canada, and has been creating computer graphics for around 11 years. Much of what he does is, of course, client commissioned work, but every now and then he gets to do an RnD (Research and Development) piece for himself. As seen in the below smoky example from almost two years ago. In this short sample we can see the intricate detail Joel puts into all his work, and why he has quickly gained a strong reputation in this field.
At the present Joel is freelancing under his company name, Delicate Machines. From time to time, however he will relocate to work in-house with another company. For the majority of companies, dealing with bigger, more high profile projects seem to like having artists and contractors working onsite. It provides more control and security for the work being created. However if you are mainly creating specific elements for shots, then companies will usually be more flexible in working with remote or offsite artists. The reason for mentioning this is, if you are interested in getting into this field, then the previous information from Joel may steer which companies you apply to, particularly if you are unable to immediately relocate.
Below we can see Joel’s latest reel, which shows the quality of work he has produced and the amazing titles he has worked on with 3ds Max.
Joel has worked on a number of high-profile movies with 3ds Max, but mentions that he “kind of fell into VFX. I have always been a really big fan of movies, visual storytelling, and art in general, but never really gave any thought of trying to get a career out of it.” He left high school back in the mid 90’s before anyone had even heard of the internet, or ‘behind the scenes’ features on BluRays. He mentions that his “exposure to VFX was limited to what I saw in the theatres.” After high school Joel attended university, studying fine arts, philosophy, and psychology. He goes on to say that “while I found that to be very interesting, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My dad had seen an ad in the local newspaper for a school that was teaching 3d animation and suggested I look into it. After visiting the school, I knew immediately this is what I wanted to do. I quickly threw together a portfolio from some of the work I had done in my Uni (university) classes, and enrolled in the school the following semester. That was pretty much how it all began.”
Asking Joel how he progressed into VFX, he remarks that “I think just my love of film and breakfast cereal. Every studio I have worked at has always had an endless supply of breakfast cereals. I have never questioned why they did, it just seems to be the standard.”
Like most of us who use 3ds Max, Joel is a part self-trained and part-professionally taught. As mentioned earlier, Joel took “some really great classes in fine art and art history, which gave me a nice foundation of fundamentals to build upon, and then a year of school learning the basic principles of 3d; modelling, lighting, texturing etc. But over the past 10 or so years, I have been trying to learn anything I can to keep my skills sharp. I have enrolled in various semesters at FxPhd, a few Gnomon courses here and there, many webinars from various software vendors on how to use their products better. I’ve also just recently become aware of the Autodesk webinars, which I will be watching in the future.” For anyone else who may have missed these free web presentations and masterclasses, you can view the previous recordings at http://www.autodesk.co.uk/meettheexperts. The can also register now for the next set, featuring our friends at Pixomondo, Analog Studios, CrystalCG and more.
Joel declares that he has a whole hard-drive just filled with tutorial DVD’s and downloads that he has purchased over the years. “I think it’s really important to stay current, and expand your skills and knowledge whenever possible.” I am sure many of you would agree with his statement. With technology rapidly evolving the battle to stay current is a challenge all of us face.
Since his first reel Joel, has been involved with an impressive amount of films. This is highlighted by his credits on IMDb. Below we can see, Joel’s first demo reel from 2001.
Surely with this range of projects it would be difficult to choose one which stands out?
”Tron:Legacy was a big project for me.” Says Joel, “Being a kid who grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s, I can vividly remember seeing the original Tron for the first time. As a little kid watching that it absolutely blew my mind! So being able to work on the sequel was pretty amazing.” Below we get a rare glimpse into how the ‘Mountain’ assets were rapidly constructed for Tron Legacy. This highlights how Joel generated the landscapes by using 3ds Max’s pFlow system. What’s particularly interesting for me is the simplicity in the pFlow construction tree. I have to admit, that I’m guilty of rarely using pFlow in this way.
He goes on to say “Transformers was really fun as well, as I was a huge fan of the cartoon series as a kid. Watching them every morning before school, buying the toys, seeing the cartoon movies as a kid; all very cool.” I think all of us can understand this. Transformers for me as a kid, was huge, and I certainly would of loved the opportunity that Joel had with this project.
Joel also has a soft spot for ‘Hellboy’. As this was “my first feature film I worked on. It was the first time I moved to a new city by myself, first time I worked on a project of that size, so I have a lot of emotions tied to that project. I worked many, many hours on that project, as many of the ‘Orphans’ from The Orphanage will remember, but it was an amazing time and I was able to take away so much from that project. “
Working on titles like this I wonder if it’s had an impact on his enjoyment of films? “I watch A LOT of movies! But there are a few that really stand out in my mind, for various reasons. Some of my most watched and favourites would have to be, Baraka, Goonies, Jaws, anything by Christopher Nolan or Coppolla, Kubrick films, and Star Wars of course!” states Joel “Which happens to be the first movie I ever saw in a theatre at the age of 2.”
On a side note, I fully recommend watching the ‘Goonies’ if you’ve never seen it. It remains one of my top 5 films, so I’m glad to hear Joel likes it too.
From here we move onto his VFX career. (and give you chance to grab a coffee….)
What does a typical day in the life of Joel look like?
“A typical day would run like this; up a 6am, breakfast, then gym, back in home office shortly before 9am. Check emails and news. Then dive into the work. Address client comments and do revisions. Work steadily until 5pm-ish. Break for dinner. Hang out with the family for a couple hours. Then back to the office to work on personal projects or project research. In bed by 11pm. Wake up and do it all again.”
Daily Joel uses 3ds Max 2011 for “anything and everything 3d” as well as currently relying on After Effects for compositing with some Nuke from time to time. Hardware wise he uses a 2.13GHz Dual Xeon Dell T7500 with 24GB ram as his main workstation, and a HP Laptop for mobile work with 6 Boxx RenderNodes, and a Dell Server for storage.
For 3ds Max Joel mentions he couldn’t live without the Undo tool. A simple statement, but something that we probably all take for granted, as so much of VFX RnD is basically trial and error.
Joel goes on to say, “I think the viewport improvements and stability have been the biggest things for me. Being able to navigate around a scene with a huge polycount is helpful. Very rarely does 3ds Max crash for me anymore. Which is also nice.” (and a relief to hear!) “I use quite a few plugins daily, but some of my more used ones would have to be Vray, Thinking Particles, FumeFX, Krakatoa, Rayfire, Deadline, Max2AE, and Vray Material Presets.” For me this is one of Max’s strongest points; its flexibility with external plugins. After all this is what 3ds Max has built its reputation on in the VFX community.
I ask about MAXScripts: “Where do I start? There are so many really great scripts out there, but a few of my most favourite and well used are Outliner, Script Organizer, and the Soulburn Toolset.”
The animation below shows some of Joels impressive RnD work to recreate explosions from mesh emitters. (On a personal note, the depth and realism in these is incredibly impressive. If you look at reference material for real-world explosion, you will see just how intricate these types of movement and forces are.)
Looking at Joels work it can be difficult to derive a style from it as most of the projects he works on are so varied. Joel remarks that one day it might be a television commercial for a beer, where the next day it might be a print ad for a cell (mobile) phone company. “One thing I try to keep in mind though is details. Any project I work on I try to add as much detail as possible.”
Joel goes onto say “Some projects allow me a great deal of influence over the final output, while others, not so much. I find most of the films I have worked on, the creative freedom is somewhat limited, when compared to something like a commercial, or music video. By the time a film gets to VFX, the concept has been done, the script is solid and locked, (hopefully), so the general idea driving the VFX tends to dictate what things should look like and how they should behave. I really think the amount of influence you have, hinges on when you become involved with the project.”
The future of the VFX industry:
Joel starts off by saying, “I think things have changed a lot over the past 10 years. I look back to when I started in this industry and it has grown by leaps and bounds. Hardware is much faster, and cheaper. Software is more accessible then it was when I started out. Even 5 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined working on a Transformers movie from my home studio; it’s unreal! I think with the advent of the cloud, the speed of the web, a real paradigm shift has happened where you no longer need a huge facility with racks of servers to complete Hollywood calibre effects.”
This is an interesting topic, and I wonder what the future holds for the VFX industry. “I find this industry to always be in flux, and I find it hard to venture a guess of where it is going. Right now, tax breaks seem to be a really big force in determining how and where VFX work is done. Cities like Vancouver and New Orleans have been growing like crazy with new studios opening, and existing studios relocating there because of tax incentives.” If your UK based, then you will also be watching what’s happening else where, particularly with our own Tax breaks about to start. VFX is now truly global. “India has also been a big factor, and now Asia is coming into the picture now, so I am keen to see how that plays out. There are rumblings of unionizing VFX worked which would be a huge change to the industry so I am eager to see how that plays out. I regularly follow two blogs which I highly recommend for anyone interested in this industry. They both give some real insight into the current state of the VFX industry. http://effectscorner.blogspot.ca/ and http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/ . Lots of great reading.”
This leads me to ask Joel what trends he has seen in the industry starting to emerge. “From a tech standpoint, the biggest trend I have seen lately is moving everything to the cloud. Whether it’s rendering, storage, project management, everything seems to be going that way. And in my mind it makes perfect sense. Being able to scale up or down as needed is a very effective way to lower your operating costs. This also allows for artists to be anywhere really, when working on a project. As long as you have a decent internet connection you can access everything from the cloud.” Joel goes onto share his thoughts on artistic trends. “Artistically, I see VFX artists having to learn more tools and techniques. Gone are the days of just having to know pFlow, or Afterburn. Know you have to know pFlow, Krakatoa, FumeFX, Thinking Particles, and Rayfire, if you want to land that VFX job using 3ds Max.”
So with these greater challenges on artists, then having some core skills must be a critical part of his core role. I ask Joel what these should be. He answers with “I think having a keen sense of observation is a very important skill to have. So much of VFX is based upon recreating things we see, and interact with in daily life. Whether it’s creating explosions, crumbling buildings, or animating characters, understanding how things work, and why they work, can help a lot.” If we were to look at non-CGI related skills, then simply observing the world around you is key to being a good VFX (and general CGIl) artist. Understanding and learning how things behave in reality will really help you.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Joel worked on one of the key shots for DOTM. In this shot we have a swat team of “squirrel men” who are parachuting into the city of Chicago, whilst being shot at by Decepticon drones. The swat team is flying through the buildings of downtown as they are being hit and destroyed behind them. He briefly mentions that some former colleagues of his had been awarded a few shots and luckily Joel was able to help them out on this one particular shot.
For DOTM, Joel worked on this one shot for about 5 weeks from start to finish. In total “there were 4 or 5 artists working on it. Scene prep, modellers, and a couple fx artists.”
The poly counts and number of objects look impressive, however Joel discusses that the “Overall scene wasn’t that bad. The only real geo (geometry) in the scene was concentrated in the fragments that were used for the building destruction. In all, I built 4 main explosions, each explosion comprised of multiple elements including, main frag geo, finer frag geo, exploding glass, debris, fumefx based shockwave, impact dust, and explosion dust. I used Thinking Particles for all the particle work, so once everything had been cached out I think the cache file was up around 17GB.” He mentions that this excludes the FumeFX cache which topped out at around 20 or 30 GB by the end.
Looking back to the video above, then you may not recognise the overlay elements on the clip. (Particularly if you are not familiar with VFX work.) Joel takes some time to describe what these are and for, and how they could help general CGI workflows. “When building this effect, multiple elements were needed. There is a main fragmenting system which blows out the building. Next comes 2 finer layers of debris; smaller bits and pieces. Then there is a layer or exploding glass for the windows. Finally, there are 3 layers of smoke and dust. When all layered together on top of the filmed footage, it looks like the building is being hit and broken apart.”
For this shot Joel was mainly responsible for the particles effects. He was handed an asset that had already been tracked and matched to the plate so ‘all’ he had to do was develop the particle system for the buildings being hit.
The biggest challenges he repeatedly comes up against, is getting the fine control that delivers the look the client or director is after. Often, Joel is using tools that help mimic that randomness and chaotic behaviour that happens in reality; fluid simulators, particles, dynamics. As a result it can be hard to find that balance between that necessary randomness, and the look that best represents what the director is after. “It’s a challenge at times, but that is part of why I love doing this stuff.“
When creating final simulations, Joel tries to “try to look for something that behaves the way it would in reality. It has to have the proper gravity, weight, density, and just look believable in the end. But I am also about those happy little mistakes that can occur when doing something like destruction, fluids, or particle fx. Like after hammering away at a shot for a few weeks, you notice there is this little piece of debris that just bounces in a cool way, or your smoke simulation has a nice wisp or curl that just happens in the right place at the right time; that’s what I look for.”
The following animation clearly shows all of this in action, creating the effects, which although incredibly, complex, remain natural.
In the above clip we clearly see some extremely realistic explosions. I wonder about the process of this and what hidden tricks Joel has for making realistic explosions. Joel explains “I don’ t think there are any real tricks per se, I think it’s knowing and thinking about how things behave in nature, and then transferring that to the tools you are using. If you look at a tool like FumeFX (FFX) for example, that software is based on how fluids act and react in nature; so knowing what gravity, heat production, and vorticity are, and what kind of effect they can have on a fluid, will really help you understand how FFX works.” He goes on to say. “A quick burst of high temperature heat, with some quickly expanding/shrinking geo seems to work really well. Also you can use a quick particle burst to create the initial explosion and then use FFX to control the finer details. It’s all about playing around really.”
I’m sure many of you are like me, and are fascinated by the amount of detail in the VFX work we are exposed to. This is certainly highlighted by the above shot. I ask Joel about this and how we manages this when creating effect like the above explosions. “If I am playing around then I try to keep things simple. I work on sculpting the basic form and getting a sim that looks nice. When working for a client, then I will really try to add in those extra details that really sell the effect. Adding in bits of debris; maybe some secondary elements that include debris or sparks.”
From here I wonder how long his average VFX shot lasts for onscreen, and if is this getting longer or shorter? “Good question! I am not sure if this is something that changes based on directors or not, but thinking back over the films that I have worked on, most shots I have worked on are 5 seconds or less. It is hard to say if shots are getting longer or shorter; simply because there are so many films that use a ton of VFX these days. There is one example that comes to mind though, I had some colleagues working on Sucker Punch a while back, and I know there were 2 sequences that were over 3000 frames each! So I guess your guess is as good as mine!” In many other industries I deal with, the average length of an animation seems to be reducing. A trend that I believe is linked to social media. We all expect information quicker and faster. I recently read that the average attention span is now only 20 seconds. If you haven’t communicated your main message or swopped shots in this time frame then it’s lost to the end viewer. (So if you’ve made it this far down the interview then your doing well!)
Anyway, back to the discussion and interview.
When I was back doing production work I would personally try to leave some short ‘debrief’ time. This would allow me to examine what went well and what didn’t, ensuring that in the next project, I hopefully, didn’t make the same mistakes. “For DOTM” Joel mentions that he “made the mistake of trying to learn new software during production. I had never used Thinking Particles before and anyone who uses it, or is learning it, there is a steep learning curve at first. After using pFlow for almost 7 years it can be hard to switch over to something new. With only 5 weeks to get the shot done I spent nearly 2 complete weeks learning how to use TP so that put a lot of pressure on myself to play catch and start banging out iterations. In hindsight I am really glad I used it, because I was able to learn a new toolset. But the added pressure and stress it brought on, was a little tough to deal with. You live and learn eh?”
He finishes off by saying that he learned that you should only use the tools you know and are comfortable with when a rush job comes in. I sentiment I can certainly agree with. However, we still need time to learn and grow new techniques. I am completely behind the idea of companies having a Friday afternoon RnD session. Learning a new tool without the pressures of deadlines are of course idealistic, but highly recommended. Joel mentions that one of the other big mistakes he sees in CGI is “Not researching the effect they are trying to create. A big part of VFX is finding references that will help you determine what the effect should look like.”
For me, another area that some companies fail is by saying yes to every project that comes along. Joel agrees that sometimes he just has to say no to projects. “From time to time I get emails from people asking if I can help out with their projects; which I love to do! But, when someone asks me to complete 5 HD shots that are completely CG, with characters and fluids sims… but they have a budget of $300? And a 2 week schedule? Then I have to respectively decline. Anytime I have said no to a project, it was because of unrealistic expectations.” I feel this is an interesting notion. Sometimes the industry and reputations can be damaged by people and companies who will say ‘Yes’ to every project. We need to educate our end customers just how much work is involved sometimes.
Moving on from how we would like to improve the industry we discuss how we would like to improve some of the tools. Of course, in this case, we have a direct discussion around 3ds Max. “Honestly I am pretty happy the way 3ds Max works for me right now. Through various scripts and plugins I have pretty much all I need right now. There are a few little things I would like to see changes, or implemented though.” He continues “After working with Maya for 10 months, I became really used to how its referencing system worked. Maya has a really great workflow similar to 3ds Max’s xRef, but I found it much easier to work with projects where I am using assets in various shots, it would be really nice if there was a smooth process for updating those assets across a production. I have tried containers in 3ds Max, but found them to be problematic.” Joel is currently planning for a production that will require a referencing system that will be custom scripted.
He also mentions he would like to see some updating to the ‘spacewarps’. “Some of these guys haven’t changed since 3DS Max 3.1 when I started using it back in 2000. So it would be nice to see some new, or even updated options in that category.” I personally believe it important that we don’t just think of 3ds Max as a perfect tool, but continue to look at it as a tool that should continue to evolve with workflows. One way in which we are doing this is via the User Voice Forum. I would recommend you visit this site if you haven’t before and help us improve 3ds Max. Around 35 of 3ds Max’s 2013’s features came directly from this community website.
Whilst discussing areas of improvement Joel goes onto share some of his recommendations for someone wanting to start out in the VFX industry. “Start with fundamentals and build upon that. Take your time to learn about this industry and how it works. Downloading the latest software or plugin and playing around is not going to make you a great VFX artist. Learn why and how these tools should be used. It’s the subtleties in knowing the tools that will separate you from the next person in line for the job. “ For inspiration, Joel describes what a VFX hero is in his opinion as someone who is good at what they do, and someone who just goes out and does it. “I have mentioned Allan McKay before because the guy is a machine! He is very skilled at what he does and he doesn’t stop until it is done. He is also very active in helping the community as well; offering training materials, and insight into how he does what he does. Joe Scarr, Anselm von Seherr – Thoss and Hristo Velev are other 3ds Max artists that I hold a high respect for as well. These guys work hard to not only support themselves, but also to offer training material to others who are willing to learn from them. I also have to give a big shout out to my good buddy Jon Mitchell. Jon is an artist at Scanline VFX in Vancouver now, but back in 2006 he and I had an idea to start our own little company. It was rough going at first, but years later things are still going strong and a big part of that is because of him.” I completely agree with everything that Joel has just said, and would strongly recommend that if you haven’t seen any of the material or tips from these guys then you have a search for them. Their knowledge and sharing spirit is something to be admired.
A question that Joel gets asked a lot by friends and family is, has your career meant cinema trips are no longer as magical? He comments that he sometimes finds he can be too analytical of films when watching them; “especially films with over the top effects. Having a job where I am scouring frames every day for bad matte lines and out of place pixels, can make it difficult to turn off my brain. But more often than not, I leave the theatre in awe, as I understand how much time and effort goes into each frame.”
What does the future hold for Joel? He is clearly a talented artist, but he continues to want to grow his skills. Over the next year his main area that he is trying to improve upon right now is his ‘focus’. “In being a freelancer you are often doing multiple things throughout the day which can break concentration, flow, and therefore productivity. Recently I have started blocking out my day into blocks of time. I am trying to be more disciplined in my routines, and workflow which has worked great so far in allowing me to do multiple projects at once.” In addition to that Joel really hopes “to dive head on into compositing more. It is something that I know would help my workflow once I had a bit of time to really understand how it all works and flows.”
Joel goes on to mention he is also “a huge fan of answering questions, so if anyone has a specific question or comment they want to send me, by all means do so!” You can reach him through the normal routes, on Twitter (@divisionof8), or via email.
Finally a colossal thanks to Joel for taking the time to share some thoughts on his work and the challenges behind them. It’s always great when artists from the community share an insight into their work. After all, this aids not just our individual knowledge, but also cultivates the industries growth. I therefore think it is only right that we end this article with another quote from Joel, but one that certainly sums up his outlook on VFX.
“The best part of my job is the variety of work I get to deal with. Every day is something different and I never really know what the day will bring. Every project has so many variables that it’s hard to predict what is going to happen, and that is what I love about it. Different people, different budgets, different styles, it all makes for an exciting way to work.
It’s hard to explain the process, but in general most people understand the result. Most of the time I get to tell people I have one of the best jobs out there. You get to travel if you want to, get to work on some pretty amazing projects, with some amazing and talented people. What’s not to love!”