Interview - Solid LA

Animation Studio - production and post-production

 Los Angeles, USA
Jason Ett & Shane Zucker, Solid Creative Directors

Tell us a bit about you...When did you start the company? What programs/plugins do you use?
In its current iteration, the company is two years old. Solid is built around the idea of bridging design and emerging technologies. Ember, a design company we founded in 2005, was acquired by Solid in October 2009, and we’ve brought the same philosophy and vision to our work here. We predominantly use Maya, After Effects and Flame for most of our projects. For plug-ins, we have used Massive and Realflow on a number of occasions. Both of those toolsets really bring a whole slew of interesting production challenges into the mix, but it’s always a blast to put our team to the test, as well as bring in specialists to give our projects that extra something.
How do you keep up with all the changes in technology?

We are constantly researching the latest developments in CG toolsets in both the 2D and 3D arenas, playing with demos and beta versions. In addition, we stay up-to-date in other areas like computer science, audio-visual technology, real-time interactive tools and visual programming languages. These other alternative fields really help us to approach our projects from a variety of unexpected angles and help us to think about how we can bring a new dimension to what we’re offering clientele. Blogs, universities, research papers, and software websites...we hit them all.
How involved is the interview process at Solid LA?
We are always interviewing artists who show some level of promise, natural skill, passion and finally, a relentless attention to detail. Even if an artist likes to really focus on only a small section of the CG production process, as long as they try to bring something innovative and well thought-out to the table, we will meet with them. The whole process usually entails three to four face-to-face meetings to really get a grasp of someone’s capabilities, his/her passions and how he/she might fit into our studio culture.

With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that a 3D Designer has in his portfolio or skills? How important is it to have a proper education in this field?
Shane: We feel the term "proper education" can be so many different things. A proper education is essential, but that education can come from unexpected places. I personally have a Bachelors degree in Finance, but worked tirelessly to get training under the right people. Sometimes for free, such as dumping trash as an intern, but eventually, for modest compensation in the mid-90s. More importantly, the people I worked with had a lot to offer. And luckily, I was expected to dig deep to find my natural abilities and turn them into strengths. Artists either learn a plethora of CG skillsets (the generalist approach) or pick one aspect that they feel strongly about (lighting, particles, etc.). We’ve had many successes with both types.
Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the Visa Digital Wallet project and the difficult parts? 

With Visa, Solid was essentially asked to give visual form to a new financial network that had never been seen before. Visa Digital Wallet was all about introducing a powerful new technology that’s greatest primary concern was balancing the fine line between security and accessibility. 
As far as the process, our first task was essentially creating a visual vocabulary for how to describe the network and to insure it maintained consistency with the well-established Visa brand. Once we created that "graphic language," we were able to set about visualizing it in parts for the different communication of respective shots and technology demonstrations described in the script. 
What was the biggest challenge in the Late Night with Rihanna project?

Music videos have a knack for changing editorially right up until online or final delivery. This creates particular challenges for animation and design. This was even more so in the case of Rihanna as we were simultaneously producing two music videos. As changes occurred, we had to come up with solutions that mirrored each other in terms of execution, but were opposite in terms of metaphorical concepts or content for the "Day" versus "Night" versions.
You master 3D techniques in fire, character animation, 2D animation and many more. Which one is closer to you? Do you use references or just imagination?

We feel directing and executing believable motion requires a bit of both. Acquiring large amounts of reference material is certainly a part of every production process. It helps to throw several good examples into the mind and mix it up with the elasticity of imagination. The mind is definitely the place where you get to see the most variations in the shortest amount of time. Then it’s just a matter of picking a vision that is novel, creative, and appropriate -- and clearly articulating it to the team.  
EA Games Mass Effect 3 is a technical marvel. Do you plan to move Solid into game industry or maybe filmmaking?

Our takeaway from “Mass Effect 3” is really how impactful bringing a well built and animated human form can take communication to the next level. Solid has traditionally spent a lot of time designing and animating in more abstract and architectural spaces. Refining our process when it comes to character execution is where we see Solid spending a lot of time in the future. We don't really plan on Solid going into the game industry or filmmaking in their traditional sense. We really like projects where a multitude of technology formats get mixed up with great storytelling and groundbreaking CG animation. That’s sounds pretty vague, but ultimately, we want to take all of these traditional forms and, using technology and interactivity, turn them into immersive branded experiences. We feel that agencies/brands are really looking for unexpected ways to tell their story, and ideally, our studio has the right team of thinkers and artists that can take them there first.
What was the most difficult part in the fantasy world for Spice Girls?

The difficult part for us was getting the motion and our comps to make the most use of the large LED screen on which our content was being played.  Wild aspect ratios always make for an interesting production experience :) Our designer created a gorgeous set of style frames, so getting his designs into motion went pretty smoothly.
How do you start working on a project? Let’s take “Microsoft Global Rebrand” as an example. How long does it usually take?
This project, like many of ours, had a very unique strategic approach at the heart of it. After several meetings with the client about the what’s and why’s of their goals, we were able to have some effective brainstorms with the whole creative staff at Solid. We visualized our concept from scratch, integrating design, brand strategy, generative programming techniques, and CG particle systems. We them mixed them with a revolutionary new way of approaching corporate branding using a generative, real-time online database.
Which 3D model do you believe was the most difficult to achieve? (How did you do it?)
The model we built for our Solid open was the most challenging. Ultimately, no one ever saw the model, but they did see the liquid simulations running through it. We took a simple cube and turned it into a spiral form, combining the most masculine solid form with the feminine curves of the helix. It’s harder than it sounds. We also recently did an amazing model for a NASA project that we are currently working on. It’s still in production so when it is released you'll have to make your own opinion. It’s definitely a new approach to creating a tactile form that allows the viewer to interact with a photo-real CG object.
How would you describe the 3D industry in LA and how difficult it is to work with advertising agencies and somebody else’s script?
The 3D industry in LA has a LOT of exceptional talent. It’s both a bane and a boon to our existence as a competitive creative shop. Working with agencies can be great, but on the more complicated projects, you can quickly end up with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. The business is very competitive, but there are always emerging areas where interesting opportunities can be taken advantage of and allow our projects to stand out from the more traditional design.

If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
We'd probably want to spend it with John Maeda. He is adept at playing on the edge of what’s possible and ideally, that’s where we would love to learn how to spend more time. So John...lets do sushi!!