Engineering the Art and Science of FX

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Lawrence Lee, FX Artist and Supervisor, has served as Head of Effects in several Dreamworks Animation projects, including the critically-acclaimed How to Train Your Dragon 2. He is a published author of several FX-related technical and scientific papers at SIGGRAPH and other academic venues. He talked to JHI about the role of FX in CG feature animation.

You have an engineering background…What steps did you take to find your way into feature animation work?

I majored in aerospace engineering in college because I was interested in simulation.  But I was also interested in computer graphics since high school.  I learned C/C++ programming and computer graphics math on my own while working in an aerospace company.   With those skills on my resume, I landed a job as a Production Software Engineer at Disney Feature Animation.  My responsibility included writing and maintaining proprietary software as well as providing technical support for the production artists using the software.  Working closely with production artists gave me insights into what they do and allowed me to make the jump when the opportunity arose.

Could you share any stories of a past project that challenged you and your team to find new solutions and efficient FX workflows?

On How to Train Your Dragon 2, one of the most challenging effect elements was the ice-spitting dragon.  This dragon can spit out huge blasts of water, and then freeze them using his cold breath.  As the water freezes it turns into these menacing spikes of ice.  To accomplish this, we tried many different methods, but eventually settled on a hybrid of procedural and simulation based approach.

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The FX artist has high levels of control over procedurally-generated spikes. This allowed the creative supervisors to choreograph the growth and shapes of the ice.  The liquid simulation driven by the underlying procedural geometry added realism and believability which was crucial in keeping the audiences in the world of the story.

How much of your work is artistic direction and how much of it is technical?

 I’d say roughly one-third technical, one-third is artistic, and the rest is communication and administrative.

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As a senior FX artist at Dreamworks, do you have any words of advice for artists who are trying to break into FX work on film and TV?

FX animation is a very multi-disciplinary field.  The best FX artists have a well rounded skill set.  They generally have a great artistic eye and are technically strong to tackle complex problems. I would recommend taking a variety of classes ranging from basic art and animation principles, math and physics, to some basic computer programming classes.  While Houdini from SideFX is one of the more popular FX software packages out there, it’s more important to be able to quickly pick up new skills and learn new technology, as the field advances at a fast pace.  Of course, a killer demo reel always gets you noticed.

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 All production stills © 2014 Dreamworks Animation LLC

Interview by Shish Aikat

 

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