Featured Artist: David Cunningham, Vancouver
My name is David Cunningham, and I am a Houdini Artist from Australia, currently residing in Vancouver and working as a CG Supervisor. I have been lucky enough to work at several prestigious studios around the world, where I have had the good fortune to sit next to or be led by incredibly talented and patient people who have helped me become a better Technical Director. It would be a complete fabrication to claim that I am a Houdini expert - I'm not even close to being the most technical person in any given FX department. However I have been fortunate enough to learn from some of the very best, who generously shared their immense knowledge and inspired me to become better at my job and to expand my skill-set.
As an Effects Technical Director, your primary required skill is your technical ability (knowledge of fluid dynamics, basic engineering, problem solving, technical understanding of software etc.), but I think there are other, equally important skills that are often overlooked. I will be discussing some of those skills, and how they have assisted me in not just becoming a better visual effects artist, but also how these skills have allowed me to more thoroughly enjoy my career as a professional.
I will talk through attributes and skills that I think make a good FX TD. What qualifies me to comment on what makes a good FX TD? Well, I haven't always been good (and I certainly don't claim to be great now), but I've learned where my strengths and weaknesses lie, and I am now in a position where I lead or supervise FX TDs – giving me a lot of insight into who does their job well, and why.
I learned a lot about fluid dynamics on Edge of Tomorrow!
THE BIG PICTURE
In FX, and with Houdini especially, it is very easy to get lost in the process, and forget about the end game. What we are outputting is really a 2D image after all. I think that fact can get forgotten very easily and in our efforts to try and be procedural, we can sometimes go overboard and get a little too procedural. Sometimes, it is okay to use a keyframe (gasp!), instead of a few nested fit functions that can often result in expressions that are hundreds of characters long. Obviously if we are building setups to be reused by multiple artists, we want things to be procedural, transposable, and 'plug and play'. But sometimes the thrill of making a giant, foolproof, silver-bullet setup blinds us from remembering that it's our final output that matters. It's a classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. I'm in no way criticising the procedural mentality - just try not to go overboard. Remember - your supervisor and the client don't care how your setup worked, just that your images look good.
Yep, more water.
The ability to communicate clearly with your co-workers, supervisors, leads etc is a skill that is vastly undervalued, but critically important in the visual effects industry. The power to convey where you are at with your shots, whether you're having trouble with your tasks, and clearly describing your work in dailies are things that I see as crucial to being a successful VFX Artist or Technical Director. If I had a dollar for every time someone came to dailies and sat there in silence when their work came up on the screen, I'd be a rich man. In dailies, as soon as your work comes up on screen, state what the last notes were, what notes you addressed, what you didn't get to address, and what you intend to do in the next version. This allows you to get out of dailies faster, get targeted feedback on your work, and prevent you getting pixel-f*%&ed on things that don't need to be critiqued yet.
Tests with shading and smoke sims.
Are you struggling with a task, and have searched online, asked your team-mates, and banged your head on your desk for half a day? Communicate with your lead and let him or her know as soon as you are struggling or having difficulty with something, and are concerned you may not be able to hit your deadline. If you speak up, it is easier for your supes and prod team to plan for ways to address the issues or shuffle your priorities. They will be glad that you let them know early. Don't be an island - your greatest resources are sitting either side of you, and are there to help. Asking for assistance is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of self-awareness, and will be recognised by your team. Oh, and let your lead and/or prod know where you are at with your tasks before you leave each day - you will both sleep easier! Start doing these things, and your reliability will be noted - and the hero shots won't be far behind.
ARTISTIC vs TECHNICAL
The VFX Industry is full of countless very intelligent people, but we often forget that there are many different types of intelligence. Some people's intelligence is mathematical and logical, whilst others have visual, linguistic, or interpersonal intelligence. Most people are dominant in one, but have traits of several types of intelligence - all of them valuable in the creation of visual effects. In any given FX team, a large proportion of people have backgrounds in programming, engineering, or computer science. These are hugely technical individuals who are able to solve the most complex of problems, and are invaluable to the FX department. However, as stated before, we must remember that what makes the final image is what really matters (not to discount the technical processes that go into it). Some people have an artistic eye that allows them to make much better effects than the technical gurus, but they are only half as technical. Why? Because they can see what makes a brilliant looking image, and bring the elements together in a visually pleasing way. These people have something that other more technical people often don't have - an ability to see creatively and holistically how a shot or effect needs to look. A good eye for effects is something that I give more credit to than technical talent, because it it's not something that is easily learned. The technical skills can be learned to a satisfactory degree with time and patience, but it's a lot harder to teach someone how and why something looks beautiful.
Avengers 2 - one of the most fun times I’ve had as an FX TD.
Often people feel that they need to be building tools and setups to advance to a more senior role, or prove their technical ability. Whilst this skill is rather valuable, it is not a necessity in order to be a good FX TD. You won't necessarily be the boffin in the corner making every tool or effect with nothing but hundreds of lines of VEX - and that's ok. Work out what your strengths are (but work your tail off to rectify your weaknesses), and utilise them. If you feel that you're not as technical as the person next to you, work on getting better, but remember you don't have to compete with the person who has the double degree in Engineering and Maths. I remember when a superior of mine expressed dismay that (at the time) I did not know Python. When I asked how old he was when he started programming, he said “Eight”. It's a little hard to keep up with someone who has that kind of edge! As one producer once told me when I expressed my concern about not being as technical as my colleagues, “You are in your current position because you bring something unique to the table. You don't need to be the person sitting next to you”. Whilst most Houdini artists are 'Technical Directors', don't worry if you're more artistic than technical.
One of the hardest things to do as an FX TD is to get over your own ego. Everyone likes to think they're smart. But at some stage in your career you will more than likely sit next to a 'junior' who knows more than half the 'mids' in your team. Want to get up to scratch? Learn. Ask the people around you, even the kid who is fresh out of school - chances are they can show you something you've never even thought of. Do not be afraid to ask for help - humility is a good trait to have, and team work is priceless in visual effects. I doubt there's anyone out there whose reel only contains work solely done by them, with zero help from colleagues. My reel contains maybe one or two effects that I did entirely myself. Every other effect has either had technical assistance from a co-worker or lead, or was completed with tools made by someone else. It would be nearly impossible for me to have completed it all without assistance from people far more intelligent than I. But that's how you get better. People will respect you for coming to them for help far more than they will for you being a fortress of solitude. You will no doubt be surrounded by countless people with know-how and tricks that will help you achieve your goals, so tap into that rich source of wisdom and seek assistance from those around you. They will be the fastest, most reliable sources of information who can show you things that no online tutorial can.
Fun with shading and smoke sims.
One area of FX that has grown increasingly important over the last few years (possibly thanks to the Wrangle SOP) is programming. In Houdini, we have the ability to execute tasks in mere seconds with a line or two of VEX; those same tasks would have previously taken minutes to do in a VopSop. This has escalated the technical skills of many a Houdini user. But is programming a necessary skill in order to succeed in FX? Yes and no. You can definitely make a successful career as an FX TD without being a programmer. A friend of mine, Alex Halstead, has one of the most mind-blowing FX reels I've ever seen, yet he does not do programming. By his own admittance, he uses Wrangles on a daily basis for simple tasks, but is not writing 20-line blocks of VEX. He doesn't code pages of Python or VEX or MEL in order to do his job, like a lot of people do. He just has an amazing eye for visual effects, and uses the skills he has in order to make eye-popping effects. To quote Alex himself, “I didn't get into this industry to be a programmer. I just want to make art”. And, “With Houdini, you don’t need to code”. Don't believe that it's possible? Look up Alex's reel on Vimeo and prepare to be amazed.
Python can be a very handy skill to have.
On the other hand, if you get to the point in your career where you are responsible for other artists, or are in a role where you are leading or supervising, then programming becomes more important. You may find that you need to streamline repetitive tasks, or fix tools in your studio, or build workarounds for limitations in the software or pipeline. The delivery of shows may depend on your ability to solve problems and to make additions to workflows or software. And you most likely will need to make shortcuts or bits of code for artists to use in order to solve their own problems. In this case, yes, programming skills are very important. It was only when I became a lead artist that I realised that I needed to get my Python skills up to scratch - there was no way my team was going to be able to deliver if I didn't work out how to code fixes for the outdated tools we were given. Ramping up my Python skills is one of the best things I've ever done - the possibilities it opens up are endless, and I've only scratched the surface with my somewhat mediocre programming skills. While not entirely necessary to make great FX shots, programming skills are definitely required when you are overseeing FX teams and are involved in the maintenance or creation of FX pipeline tools.
If I were hiring someone right now and needed to describe an ideal FX TD, they would have all of the qualities I have talked about above. But there are other attributes that make someone stand out from the bunch. A positive, friendly attitude and the willingness to be social with your co-workers is something that endears you towards others. If you are someone that people want to hang out with and have a beer with after work, then chances are they will want to work with you again - that could be the difference between getting your next job or not. I know that I would rather work with a reasonably skilled person who is great to get along with, than a genius with an attitude problem.
A strong work ethic is something I also value highly, but seems to be so rare. Too often people feel that once they are comfortable at a studio, they can take it easy and put in 50% effort and still have the hero shots given to them. I can guarantee the better shots will go to the people who work hard and perform diligently, over the talented ones who don't put in the effort. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. Likewise, someone who has good work habits will always outperform someone with more natural skills, but who is lacking in the personal workflow practices that would make them an efficient and effective FX TD.
A great attitude makes people want to work with you again. Photo Courtesy of Anna-Lena Carl.
So, hopefully some of this has given you a little insight into what I believe are important skills that are often valued a little less than they should be in our industry. The ability to see the bigger picture and keep the final image in mind, making an effort to learn from those around you, being a good communicator, and working hard are all things that I think will escalate you as an FX TD. And don't worry whether you are as technical as the person sitting next to you. Despite common beliefs, it is possible to be a successful FX TD whilst being more artistic than technical - but don't forget to brush up on those MicroSolvers and VEX anyway!
I'd like to thank several people who have shared their knowledge with me over the years, and have shown saint-like patience in doing so. Without them, I wouldn't be here dispensing advice! In no particular order; Christian Hernandez, Piotr Barejko, Chris Lawrence, Ryan Coster, Alexis Hall, Miles Green, Julien Depredurand, and Jim Goodman.
David Cunningham 2017
By: Patricia Cornet