Interview - Andy Turner

Andy Turner
Freelance CG/ VFX Artist

 United Kingdom


Tell us a bit about you...When did you start? What programs do you use?
I started working in the games industry back in around 1996 for a small studio called Particle Systems. I began my career by being thrown in at the deep end. I was asked to work in a 3 man team producing 20 minutes of CGI animation for the intro and in-game movies for the game Independence War (I-War in Europe). We did everything ourselves, there were no specialisms back in those days, we all did everything. It was a massive learning experience and one that I still maintain taught me most of what I needed to know as a visual storyteller to this day. We used Lightwave pretty exclusively, even for the realtime asset production. 

After a few years at the games company working as a lead on the sequel to I-War  
and another game called Powerdrome
in 2003 Myself, 2 colleagues from the games studio Argonaut, Stephen Tappin and Richard Wright and an Illustrator called Greg Staples started Ark VFX. A year or so later Greg left and Michael Powell who was an ex-director of Particle Systems and as it later became Argonaut joined.
Ark VFX closed its doors last year and I've been working as a freelancer since then. 
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that a Motion Designer has in his portfolio or skills?
Knowing what you need to do to get something to look really good on screen is a very useful skill. By that I mean start with the minimum you need to do to based on your experience in order to produce something with the maximum on screen impact. That might mean not spending too much time on a model because you know you're going to shake the camera around on that particular shot, or that the model might be small on screen, only seen from one side etc. I've seen people spend weeks working on something that will never ever be seen, trouser seams that take days for a character that is only shot from the waist up, backs of ears that just aren't important when your character is 100 pixels high on screen and is running around like a lunatic etc.
To be competitive you've got to be efficient. You can then spend your time on more important, visible parts of a project.

Your have an extended experience in advertising and gaming. What can you tell us about similarities or the differences between the two?
Gaming projects are generally driven by the leads of the game developers so you're normally dealing directly with the artists responsible for producing the game. It's their baby so they're usually good at giving you direction and they more often than not understand the processes involved with production. With advertising there's usually a hierarchy involved. There's the production agency who we would deal with on a day to day basis, then there's the creative agency who would normally have most of their dealings with the production agency, then there's the client who really only talk to the creatives. So it can sometimes be a bit of a frustrating process. But the production company we were represented by at Ark, Blinkink, were really good, always would be very supportive and they'd fight our corner if they needed to. 
Super League Titles received a lot of attention. Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the project and the difficult parts?

The first step of the process was talking with Adam the director about the project. He knew of our work and the sort of style we'd all produced when we were working together as Ark and wanted to tap into some of the cool Sci-Fi elements we were so enthusiastic about and had produced in the past. The project was produced and managed by Xenon. Michael Powells new production company.
Once storyboarding and initial concept designs (Stephen Tappin) were done modelling began on the suit. Tim Brown spent a few weeks modelling while Rigging TD Richard Bentley would get updated models and integrate them into the animation rig. The players were mocapped at Centroid and the data sent back and integrated into the rigs. Once this initial rig was complete I could then take the rig and mocap and start the initial sequence design. Using the boards as reference and also using the video footage from the mocap shoot I could get an idea of what I wanted to do in the shots. The way I like to work is  to start fast and dirty. So I would setup the most important part of the shot/sequence first and keep an edit open while I make changes and quickly move from the animation software (Maya) to the edit. That way I can very quickly build up a good flow which was especially useful on this project since I needed to create action sequences from discreet performances. The other thing that I was mindful of was that I had to try and keep the scale of the project reasonably tight, so designing shots that were exciting but not too wide as to reveal too many players, I just didn't have the time to have all the players in each shot in terms of animation fixes/rendering.

Once the first version of the edit was complete Adam came up and we went through it making changes and adding a couple of new shots here and there. I have to admit that I know very little about Rugby League and I found myself creating action sequences that looked great but didn't really work in the rules of the game! This is where Adams knowledge of the game came in. He really wanted the piece to be as authentic as possible and with his guidance we locked down the rough edit a couple of weeks into the project.
Meanwhile Rich Wright took the updated models and set and began work shading and lighting. We used Renderman for Maya as the renderer for this project. We'd initially thought we might use Lightwave but after a couple of tests we decided to keep the whole production in Maya.

Once the edit was locked down, the model and rig completed, and all the players placed in the scenes I began the process of secondary animation. This involved going through the shots and fixing the many problems we had with intersections, feet going through legs, hand/fingers animation, adding more weight on impacts, enhancing various moves and poses and adding the particle effects and getting the all important nuances on the camera moves just right.
One of the major issues we'd flagged right at the start was the fact that the suit is much bulkier than the actual players being mocapped. So we always knew that we'd have to design and rig the suit to allow us to compensate for that at a later date. Rich B's excellent rig and Mayas Anim layers were a godsend on this project.
Once the edit and all the animation was completed Rich Wright took the scenes lit, rendered them in various layers and output the comp which was then added to the edit. 

How do you keep up with all the changes in technology? 
Just by reading stuff on the web or talking to colleagues about various techniques and methods.
What was the biggest challenge in the Lotus Night Road project?

Well that was a personal collaboration between myself and modeller Craig Clark. He had already built the model of the Elise based on reference I'd taken from my own car. My original idea was to film some footage and track the car into it, showing the internals of the cars suspension and engine. But due to impending projects and time limitations I couldn't do that. So I ended up front projecting a photo I'd taken in the peak district onto geometry and spending time surfacing the car to become semi-transparent. I'd have liked to produce some more shots that way but I ran out of time, work pays! The biggest challenge was the rendering. Full ray tracing, transparency, reflectivity, refraction and radiosity make for long render times.
Out of all the projects you have done, which one is your favorite and why?
I'd have to say that the Super League titles were probably my favourite. It's the first big project I've worked on purely as a freelancer and I had quite a lot of freedom to come up with the sequences. The Sci-Fi element really appealed to me and everyone else who worked on it and we were trusted to play to our strengths which I think really shows in the final product.

I also really enjoyed the Coco Pops Cave Bowling ad that we directed as Ark too. Again, I had the freedom to animate the characters and setup the sequences pretty much as I wanted and that was a lot of fun to do.
What was the most difficult part in Muse: Sing For Absolution video? How much did you do and in what specific areas (storyboard/compositing/modeling)?
This was pretty much Arks first project and the first thing we Directed. At the time their was just the 4 of us and only 3 of us able to work on the CG elements which actually was pretty much all of it. We did get a couple of the models built by freelancers but apart from that the bulk of the work was produced by myself Stephen Tappin and Richard Wright.

The biggest challenge on that one was the sheer number of shots we'd set for ourselves. Looking back we were perhaps a little ambitious with the scale of the piece but our backgrounds as CG generalists really saved us on that one. 

Steve and I produced the boards which we then made into an animatic edit timed to the track. Then we basically sat down and wrote a huge list of shots and assets and stuck it on the office wall. Every day we'd go through it ticking off what we'd done and what state it was at. I tended towards the more action oriented animation sequences, a fair chunk of modelling/rendering and the edit. Steve was responsible for shooting the band and integrating them into the ship, matte paintings, concept designs and shared modelling and animation, Rich did a lot of the colour design, mood boards, and mattes along with surfacing and rendering. Basically we all did a bit of everything.
The whole thing took about 10 weeks from initial treatment to final grade at the Mill.
I even got to produce some sound design for the final edit which was really cool of the band!
How do you start working on an idea? Do you use references or just imagination?

It depends what it is! If i'm asked to do something very specific I'll go for references, but I have to admit I tend to rely on my feeble imagination more than I should!
Which effect do you believe was the most difficult to achieve? (How did you do it?)

I had quite a few problems with the number of animated creatures in the trailer for Overlord . We had to have loads of these “minions” charging along and the problem was that they were quite memory hungry. We also had some technical problems which meant that I'd spend a day animating a scene then when I came to load it in again the animation had errors in it there weren't there before. We eventually got around it and I setup the characters in separate scenes that were then imported rather than referenced into the final scenes.

The Jameson chair monster was an interesting one too. The brief was a monster (originally it was to be a huge monster that charged down the street) entirely made of directors chairs.
We initially did some render tests in Renderman for Maya but it soon became apparent that Maya simply couldn't handle the number of objects we needed and setting up special rigs and scripts to get it to work would have taken too long so I ended up animating and setting up the particle effects in Maya and then exporting to Lightwave where the plugin HD Instance was used to render a chair in place of each particle. That way we could have almost unlimited chairs in the scenes.
Do you use the same techniques from one project to another? What changes? What’s your favorite part (modeling, sketching, rendering, effects)?

They can change depending on the project but generally yes I use more or less the same techniques. My favorite part is probably Layout and animatics. That for me is where a project is made or broken. It's the designing of sequences and directing action that I really love. Taking an Idea from paper and giving it structure and life. The actual business of animation comes after that and while it's enjoyable producing animated performances,  adding subtlety and depth, I still love looking at the bigger picture. To me the animatic should dictate everything from then on. There's really no point in spending time and money on ultra detailed models or changing a render of a character umpteen times if the animatic dictates that the character is going to be speeding across the screen, motion blurred and dimly lit!  
Do you also create the storyboards for each project?
I have done in the past, Muse for one. But I gave up boarding when because people generally go blind when they see the state of my sketches!
How important is it to have a proper education in this field? 

Well it's always useful to be educated in general! But as far as I'm concerned it's not  important to come from an academic background. If you want to be an artist in any field all you have to do is get good and be seen by the right people. I never did well at school, in fact I was pretty terrible! I somehow got to go to college and became interested in Art and from then on worked on my portfolio, learning as much as I could about my chosen field.
How important it is to have the right tools? (a good computer/camera)

You probably need a computer if you want to be a CGI artist ;) But you dont really need the best machine in the world. In fact I have a theory that some of the best artists have the worst machines, it forces you to think about what you're doing and be efficient! Maybe I'm just jealous of people with uber computers I don't know...
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be? 
Umm... I'd probably like to spend a day with someone like Ridley Scott, or Clint Eastwood just sit in the background and watch them at work on a film set. 
What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
I'm working on a Game project at the moment and I've got a couple of personal projects I'd like to be working on. I'd like to work with the ex Ark guys and Xenon again on a project at some point. Other than that, give us a job... ;)