Interview Cormac Kelly
First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer our reader’s questions.
My pleasure. May I start off by saying that the work I do at Piranhabar is very collaborative and I'd like to give a shoutout to Gavin Kelly, Dave Burke, Simon Burke, John O' Connell, Will Sharkey, Nick Preston, Ciaran Brennan, Morton Vinther and Aaron Inglis for being such driving forces behind the ad's we do. A little naff but hey, I wouldn't be here with them!
Tell us a bit about yourself... When did you discover 3D? What programs/plugins do you use?
As far as I remember, I discovered 3D when I reached out and poked my mother in the eye with my stubby little fingers as a newborn! The minute I discovered depth perception, I’d have to say I was hooked. My first brush with the software however, as far as I remember was a little program that came with a computer magazine back in the nineties called “Simply 3D”. It came with a set of video tutorials on how to use it which baffled my tiny young mind. Once I figured that sucker out I was creating stunning (!) 3d logo’s that spun infinitely on those lovely animated gif and multimedia cluttered websites of the nineties. After that, I left Simply 3D for it’s bigger more experienced sister, Truespace, which also came free with a magazine. They pretty much whetted my appetite for 3d but it really wasn’t until college that I really got into 3d in any serious kind of way. It was 3D Max 6 that got me truly hooked, probably because I was doing a model-making and creature prosthetics design course at the time and clay and latex just didn’t have an “undo” button. After college I landed a job in Piranhabar which saw me swap Max for XSI and we've been happily married ever since. Plugin wise, I don’t tend to use very many since 3rd party plugins in Softimage/Xsi, for the moment at least they aren’t as widespread as they are in other programs such as Max and Maya. There is a handy camera shake addon by Fabricio Chamon which comes in very useful for those cinéma vérité shots! Also, the T2S shader by Tek2Shoot was fanstastic for quickly creating great materials but it seems to no longer be supported in the latest version of Softimage which is a huge pity. I miss you T2S.
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an artist has in his portfolio or skills?
In Ireland’s advertising industry, at least, it tends to be a very multi-skilled 3d industry. Over here you pretty much have to be competent in a multitude of 3D skills. If you rock at modeling but you can’t breathe any life into that model in the animation department, you’re not going to be as useful as the next guy who’s a bit of a legend at both. I know a lot of schools and courses tend to focus on one aspect such as modeling or animation. My college course was called “Model-making and Design for Film and Television”. It involved creating objects in the physical world such as props and creatures but luckily there was a tiny part of the course that allowed me to do some computer based 3D modeling. I hadn’t a whole heap of training in the animation, rigging, lighting or texturing departments. I had to teach myself those but luckily in my final project there was enough of a spark in most of the various areas to convince someone to hire me. Being a “jack of all trades and master of none” may seem like bad advice but with the industry being as competitive as it is at the moment and with post houses looking for people they can trust to take on a full project from start to finish, I feel its getting increasingly more difficult for specialists to find work, in Ireland at least. My advice would be to make sure you are well rounded in most areas when you apply for a job or at the very least make sure you show your prospective employers there’s enough of a spark in all the major areas there. If it’s movies you’re looking to get into though, that’s a very different story!
What are, according to you, the weaknesses of Autodesk Softimage compared to other packages?
Personally, I’m a little disappointed with the lack of 3rd party plug-ins. I would love to see a fully integrated version of Vray for example. I believe the lads at Chaos Group been working on a version for a while but historically it seems Softimage/XSI has been left out in the cold as regards 3rd party support. Having come from 3D Studio Max with its ludicrous amount of plug-ins covering all the bases, the shelf seems a little bare, at the moment at least for Softimage. I would love to see a fully integrated and supported Fluid dynamics solution for example. I think ICE is helping out on that front with solutions like SPH Fluids and other user generated content but I would love to see more production tested solutions added to Softimage’s arsenal. It’s so nicely rounded in so many other area’s and suited to my needs that it would be great not to have to hop out of the software as much to get the job done. The cake needs a little more icing is all!
Out of all the projects you have done, which one is your favorite and why?
Oooh, that a toughie so I’m going to be sneaky and give a double barrel answer. Personally, I suppose I have a soft spot for “Sunflare”.
It was my final project in college and pretty much got me the job I’m working in today so I’m very thankful to it. It started as a little drawing I did a few years ago depicting a robotic foetus. I was a little stuck for ideas when it came to doing my final project in college when I came across that drawing again. I’m glad I did because I had a blast making this music video. Technically, it may not be as polished as some of my later stuff (I was only just starting out on my 3d journey) but it has been very kind to me over the years. I really enjoyed working on it because I was both the client and agency on this one! It combined my two loves, music and visuals. I composed the song and did all the visual bits which was a bit of a mountain to climb at the time but man was it a fantastic learning experience. My bordering-on-disturbing passion for robots and technology helped out a little too.
Commercially I would have to say I quite enjoyed working on the “Rice Krispies Squares” series of commercials. Each one is a mini movie. Out of college you have this really romantic view that you will be working on epic character based pieces but the truth is there are a lot of pack shots and rotoscoping to do before you get on to those! “B-movie” was one of the first ads I worked on with a dramatic script. Maybe not an epic per-se but certainly a fun little skit involving a giant marshmallow devouring a sleepy American town somewhere along Route 66. As far as I know it’s one of the few ads we’ve done that has gone international too, which is nice.The "Rice Krispie Squares Supermarket" ad was probably the most fun of those to work on. Having guys around me with such talent and experience in the industry helped ease me into these projects when I was new to the industry. They and indeed all of Piranhabar's ads are a very collaborative effort.
What is the typical starting point in a 3D commercial spot? How long does it usually take? What supporting departments do you typically involve on an average project?
As you might expect it all starts with storyboards and concept drawings. We have a painfully talented concept artist on our team called Ciarán Brennan who usually draws up some elaborate storyboards for us button pushing 3d monkeys with something they tell me, is called a pencil. After that’s all cleared and approved we usually set about building the assets and characters for approval. An animatic is usually next on the cards. Then we’re on to the final version and after a few phone calls, meetings and emails with the agency and client our file naming scheme usually ends up looking a little like:
You get the picture. By then its typically anywhere between a week and month depending on the job and budget and we’ve involved most of our team. Concept artists, 3d Artists, and Flame artists all get a piece of the pie on a typical Piranhabar project. It’s a very collaborative process with a lot of the very talented people around me that get the jobs done. Lately job’s are getting pushed through a lot more quickly so it’s a good thing we tend to work together so well.
You worked for clients like BMW, Kellogs and Vodafone. Did you use the same techniques from one project to another?
As cliché as it might sound, every project tends to have its own unique set of challenges. With the more universally/internationally known clients, quality control is very high and you will tend to go through more iterations to nail how the product is portrayed to the public. 3d-wise they generally involve similar skills but in varying degrees. For example, BMW would typically involve more attention to lighting to show off their cars sexy curves. Kellog’s Rice Krispies Squares commericals tend to use a lot of fluid simulations to suggest the endless rivers of chocolate and caramel. Sub-surface scattering plays a big role in making their products look appetising as well. Vodafone ads would be quite modeling heavy and due to the details needed to make the phones they’re selling desirable and tangible, they would also tend to be more perfect versions of the real thing.
What challenges did you face in the “Lights Out” project?
There were many challenges with that short but one of biggest challenges was probably the time I had to make it! "Lights Out" all started as a brief to fill our extra wide reception desk screen (3 panels wide) with something cool to look at. It was an open brief, I could pretty much do anything I wanted but it all had to be done from start to finish in about 9 days. I would normally like to spend more time sketching out ideas and researching a little more but I pretty much had to dive head first into this one. Sometimes I actually find the kind of energy that comes with tight deadlines quite useful and the project was finished on time...just! Another pretty big challenge was trying to convey the story purely through actions. No audio was created for the original format lest the poor receptionist be driven mad with it on loop by her desk. I wasn't sure if the audience would get that the poor little guy was just trying to grab some sleep and that the factory was having none of it! I think most people got that, I hope. The extending arm element was pretty tricky too.
Since this was originally designed for to be viewed inside a thin strip in such a wide format, I had to make sure it was visible on screen at all times and that I had built enough bits to stretch the entire length required. It had to look ridiculous so I just kept building until I ran out of ideas...and then built a little more. I had never worked inside such an obscure format before (1920x250 and then up-scaled) so that was certainly a challenge to animate and frame the action to. Once the original was done I decided to re-lens it for a more standard format and throw it up on the Internet to see what people thought. It needed sound, which I had never really attempted before outside of music (music production being one of my other loves) so I had a lot of fun sourcing all the bits and recording random household objects for that. After that was done I put together a stereoscopic version for good measure, just as a test/learning exercise to see how to go about it on future projects. As I type I'm reworking the stereoscopic version in HD for 3D TVs as opposed to the anaglyph version that's out there now. Having never done anything in stereo before I learned a lot making this little short in all it's guises. It's definitely been one of the most fun projects I've had the fortune to put together so far!
Another interesting project is the ICAD logo. What can you tell us about the initial goal and the process?
The ICAD logo was another one of those tight deadline situations! Seeing a pattern? The ICAD's are an award ceremony in Ireland celebrating the various talents inside the advertising industry and Piranhabar has historically always put together a little opening sequence for the show. This year it was my turn to put something together. The theme of the night was "Back In Black" and the brief was to have some white machinery spray painted black. I figured the most logical thing would be to have the machinery itself make up the ICAD logo (which, this year was designed as an homage to the AC/DC logo) but not have that revealed until the very end. It was just under a week from concept to delivery I believe. It was a fun one as I pretty much had free reign since everyone was too busy to check in on me! Always nice. My process with such a short deadline was to build a lot of little assets and salvage some from my other robotic ventures. Then I would lay them out in a little kit and slowly paste together a little collage of random bits that made up the ICAD logo and then go around like a little kid with a camera and film it all! There was certainly a childlike thrill in putting this one together, the process drawing heavily from the kit-bashing methods used to put together Star Wars's original spaceships. I'm a huge fan of glitchy electronic music so it was a pleasure to work side by side with the guys at The Sound Butlers to put together something that would suit that style. I think I had the most fun in the editing chair. I rarely get the chance to edit but when I do I usually like to edit like I make my music...by cutting up what I have made an pasting it back together in what is hopefully a visually engaging way with the music. Luckily I wasn't editing "Pride and Prejudice" so i think it worked out alright for this one!
What challenges did you face on the RTE Two rebranding project?
The re-branding of RTE Two was such a vastly different experience to what I'm used to that I would have to say it was all a challenge. I'm used to tight deadlines but I think I actually lost count of the months we worked on this project! Since delivery was for September and we started working in March we had what seemed like a lot of time working on this project. However... there were quite a lot of these suckers to work on. On the idents side of things there were 9 to complete excluding the one for Christmas which, funnily enough was completed around Christmas time! On the interstitial side, I believe there were about 11 two second animations, also excluding all the Christmas ones. Technically, these were all quite a challenge as they tended to involve lots and lots of events happening on screen at once, so much so in fact that they're actually designed for repeated viewing and will hopefully stay fresher for longer. Everything in this little RTE eco-system is connected and has motivation even if it all seems a little surreal. The fireflies for example cause the sunflowers to open which in turn create seeds that are brought by ants to the venus flytrap to make popcorn which the dog eats. It's all pretty wild stuff. Softimage's ICE (Interactive Creative Environment) was a massive help on this project and I'm not sure how we could have pulled off the contents of the storyboards without it. There was a lot of juggling around of assets...and questions like "can we have more bees, sunflowers, more...everything"? It wasn't as big a problem as it might have been without ICE as changes usually just involved tweaking the number of particles and everything propagated through the ICE tree. We had never used ICE before this project but by the end of it all we were all chillin' with it. There was a lot of blood, sweat and (manly manly) tears involved in this project so I hope the audience enjoys watching them.
How do you start working on a character? Do you use references or just imagination?
For a character, I usually dream up a situation for him/her/it to live in first and then let the character grow organically into that situation. For my personal projects at least, I think it's important that the character has a reason for existing before it exists rather than just making up a character and plonking it into a situation. Since we've already mentioned "Lights Out" I'll use that as an example. The brief required an extra wide screen to be filled with something interesting. I figured that having a button at one end and cliff at the other would create an interesting conceit.and make use of the space available in the extra wide format. The character kind of grew around that. How would it reach the button? And so the ridiculous robotic arm was born. Perhaps creating a character to solve a problem is an interesting way of developing one. If you're ever stuck for ideas for a project or animation, try putting on your inventors hat before your animators hat!
What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
At work the projects arrive with little warning so it's hard for me to say but on the personal side I certainly have a few ideas up my sleeve. I feel that CGI is the perfect platform for dreaming up and executing "What If" situations in our world and universe so I'm hoping to get a chance to explore that. I won't say much more but watch this space!
We know the “ups”, but tell us about the “downs” in your career. Was it an easy ride?
I pretty much came out of college and into a job I've been happily working in for 3 years now so its not been too bad. Although very recently a short film I worked on with director Gavin Kelly has caused me a little bit of trouble as some of the websites, and indeed newpapers that picked it up credited me with the role of director! I'm not entirely sure how it happened as the director was credited in both the description and end credits. It's amazing how if one place gets their information incorrect how quickly it can snowball in a Chinese whispers effect. The information got so garbled that I ended up being known as the English director who directed "Avatar Days" (I'm Irish) on one site. To set the record straight, I was but a lowly vfx artist lucky enough to work on "Avatar Days" alongside VFX lead, John O' Connell and animator Will Sharkey, not to mention the very talented compositors, cinemtographers and editors that made it possible in such a short time.
What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?
Depends on the kind of praise I suppose. Academically and prize wise, it would have to be "Sunflare". It won a few little competitions here and there and did a little tour around a few exhibits and festivals. More recently, "Lights Out" seems to have taken on a bit of Internet based praise. Secretly I'm just really happy it made it on the Vimeo Staff Picks! I see it pop up around blogs now and again which I'm really not used to seeing happen with my own directorial work. Professionally, I worked with Pete McEvoy and Morten Vinther on a series of small ads for Failte Ireland which won an ICAD award. Gavin Kelly's "Avatar Days" did quite well around the film festival circuit picking up a few awards as well. Seems to be doing well on youtube and around the net the moment. That one was mad since all the filming, vfx and compositing was completed in 4 day but it was worth it.
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
Stan Winston . Okay, technically he's wasn't really involved in the CG industry and he may have had nothing to do with ads and then there's the slight hindrance in his lack of mortal being BUT if it wasn't for that man's work inspiring me when I was a child, I wouldn't have taken the model-making course and in turn wouldn't have found a place in the post-production and CG industries. I owe a lot to his inspiring legacy and ingenuity. He and his team are problem solvers, much in the same way us CG guys are. I mean they built a 34 foot long robotic T-Rex... how could anyone not be inspired by that? Alternatively, if I have to choose someone who is in the fortunate situation of being alive then it would have to be either Ken Ralston or John Lasseter of ILM and Pixar fame respectively.
What’s your favorite movie?
Terminator 2. I just love everything about that movie. The fact that it's a sequel that pretty much betters the first, the ground breaking visuals, the story, the atmosphere, the music, the sound design...everything. I can sit down and watch that movie any time and not feel like skipping a single scene. I mean, there are certainly plenty of cooler indie films with far more street cred I could have gone for but on a base level this movie has always ticked all the boxes for me. Not to mention it involved killer robots from the future, Stan Winston and James Cameron.
What would you like to add to your portfolio?
I would love to work on a movie that goes on to become a cult classic at some point in my career, possibly some kind of independent film along the lines of District 9 would go down smooth.