Interview - Guido Zimmermann
Character TD PDI/ DreamWorks
First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer our reader’s questions.
Tell us a bit about yourself...When did you discover CG? What programs do you use?
I was always attracted to CG. Back in the 80’s I was tinkering with CG and spent incredible long hours in front of my Amiga computer. I was getting more serious with CG during my time at University in Germany studying Computer Science in the mid 90’s. The University had a room with 3 or 4 Silicon Graphics machines with Softimage 3D on them. Back then those systems were worth a fortune and the University was very protective with access to them. Somehow I managed anyway and started exploring CG. I was quickly hooked and then one thing led to another. I took more classes about computer graphics and did different internships and freelance jobs for smaller studios. After graduating, I got my first real job in a Studio in Zurich Switzerland called Frame Eleven. I worked at Frame Eleven for more than 4 years doing pretty much everything in the field of CG. I wasn’t very specialized, which is typical for studios in Europe.
In 2004 PDI/DreamWorks offered me to work as a Character Technical Director (short Character TD) and I am still doing this work today. In addition to working for studios I also taught CG at the “German Film School” in Berlin and “Mesmer Animation Labs” in San Francisco. During about 11 years of working in the CG industry I touched a lot of different software packages. In the late 90’s I did production with Softimage 3D, later with Maya. In 2001 I started using more and more Softimage XSI (which is called Autodesk Softimage now) and became a huge fan of this software. With XSI I did a lot of work for commercials and won numerous awards. Today I am still very excited about this 3D software. Since working for DreamWorks Animation I started using proprietary software. It is quite different working with proprietary software that constantly evolves. During my 6 years at DreamWorks Animation the software changed substantially.
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that a Character TD has in his portfolio or skills?
The title “Character TD” can mean quite different things at different studios. At many studios this job may mean you are setting up characters (rigging) with of the shelf software. At DreamWorks Animation however the job of a Character TD can be more technical than that and we are using proprietary software. Some of us are involved in developing the software, tools, pipeline and technologies we are using for setting up characters. Some tasks involve more coding and programming skills in comparison to other studios. A background in computer science can be very helpful. But there is also another side of what the job of a Character TD can mean. Some Character TD’s deal less with the technical side but are more active on creative tasks. A good example for that would be body or facial deformations. In a way the ideal Character TD is a hybrid that merges 2 different skills sets in one person: strong technical skills like a solid background in computer science and math. On the other hand you should also have a deep understanding for motion, form and aesthetics. Often times some tend to be more technical, others more artistic. I think that is totally ok, we are a team after all.
You have worked in the US, Germany and Switzerland. Do you see differences in American or European projects?
In the US I work for feature animated movies whereas in Europe I worked mostly for TV and commercials. So I am not able to compare the exact same things. But in general I think the most obvious difference about working in Europe versus the US is that people in the US tend to be more specialized in our industry. In Europe you have to know more about all parts of the production, often times you have to be much more a generalist than in the US. One thing that I really like about our industry –in Europe and the US - is the fact that where ever you work, there will be many different people from all over the world. In my opinion this is creating a great working environment and I really appreciate that fact. It is definitely easier to be a foreigner in such mixed environments.
Have you discovered any outstanding talent among your pupils at the German Film School in Berlin ? Or at Mesmer Animation Labs in San Francisco?
Oh yes, and this is also a symbol of how small this industry really is. I once taught a Softimage XSI class to a guy at Mesmer Animation Labs more than 10 years ago. In 2004 when I started at DreamWorks Animation I run into him again in the hallway. He works for DreamWorks Animation as a Lead TD. And there is more: 2 Students of mine when teaching at the German Film School in Berlin are now colleagues at DreamWorks Animation as well, one is in Art, the other one a Character TD like myself. This is a small world indeed.
You worked on How To Train Your Dragon, Madagascar Escape 2 Africa, Kung Fu Panda and many more; did you use the same techniques from one project to another? What changes?
The basic concepts never really change much. But the tools and the expectations on the movie do. At DreamWorks Animation we are using almost exclusively proprietary software for Character TD work. This software is constantly evolving and Character TDs are actively involved in the evolution of the software as well. In addition during the last 6 years we had a big generation jump in our software. How To Train Your Dragon and Megamind were the first movies to use this new software. The typical workflow for character setup changed drastically. The work of a Character TD has definitely a deep impact on the production side. If the character setups are done well, the studio will save time and money during the production. One of the great challenges we have is to protect the animators from all the technical difficulties that 3D computer animation naturally brings with it. A good character system will look very simple to the outside, having simple to understand controls that do the obvious thing and do not put the burden of dealing with complex 3D issues to the animator. It is in a way like good software design: a clean and easy to understand user interface hides the very complex and very technical systems under the hood.
What was the biggest challenge in the Megamind project?
From a technical standpoint Megamind was very challenging indeed. We were the first show to exclusively use our completely new developed rigging software. This software was a big change in workflow for us but from an animator perspective the final characters should not be any different than the ones rigged with the old software (other than being better of course).
But that was not enough: Megamind was also the first movie to use Massive for its crowd shots. I was tasked to make sure that our new software and our new characters will work with Massive which was never used before at DreamWorks Animation. We needed to create a pipeline from scratch. And as a third challenge we also got to use a new animation pipeline that changed the way how assets are handled and run in production shots. All together that meant we needed to create top of the line characters for Megamind with the high standards we set on earlier movies but all our tools were brand new and we needed to write everything from scratch. Big challenges indeed.
Out of all the projects you have done, which one is your favorite and why?
That is hard to answer. Different projects had different challenges and I always got some new experiences out of each single Movie I have worked for. Working on a Shrek movie was simply amazing. Megamind was very interesting because of the earlier mentioned technical challenges. I also enjoyed working for “Madagascar Escape to Africa” very much. The design and animation style of Madagascar is very interesting and artistically challenging for a Character TD. I was very pleased with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. In my opinion both movies are extremely heart-warming and beautiful.
How do you start working on a character? Do you use references or just imagination?
Developing a character for a feature animated movie is a big process and many people are involved. From Story, Art, Modeling, Character Setup to Animation, Surfacing and Effects, a lot of work. Typically Art does the creative process where the character gets its looks and characteristics. They work closely with modeling who will create a 3D model of the character as a result. That is usually our starting point and we bring the systems in place to control, animate and deform the character. Once we have that the animators will start using the characters in production shots. But this sounds very static, one step after the other. In real live it is usually nothing like that. The character evolves with the show and over time and gets many iterations of redesign, bigger and minor changes in design and functionality. For example as Character TD we often have to work with Art and Modeling to make changes to the character in order to make certain actions possible and deformations look right. Sometimes it is one thing to see a character in one pose but later once it moves things fall into place and necessary changes become quite obvious.
What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?
Before my time at DreamWorks Animation, I won a couple of Awards for different commercials, a short film and a music video. One of the most noticeable awards is probably when I won the World Gold Medal at the International Film Competition of the 2005 New York Festivals. This was in the category Product Sales for the 4 minutes movie “IWC Aquatimer” which launched the Swiss luxury brands IWC’s new Aquatimer divers watch collection. There were over 1000 submissions from 32 countries. This award is also important to me since we were an incredible small team working on it. The CG was done by only 2 people, including me. On the awards that I won doing commercials they usually show my name on it. This is very much in contrast to working on big feature movies. If the big picture movie wins awards they will not have my name on them of course. Nevertheless it is an amazing feeling when a movie gets good critics or is very successful. For example I am super proud of Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon’s exceptional ratings and the positive feedback from the audience and critics. But sometimes it does not even need to be an award or good critics or box office results. Seeing people, especially kits, being fascinated by our movies is praise enough for me.