Adrian Walker: Since you work in the film industry, were there any particular films that inspired you to want to work in that industry?
Jen Bahan: When I was 6 years old, I decided I wanted to become a Disney animator. I created little flip books and I watched programs on PBS for kids learning to draw. My father worked in a public school, and he was able to buy a Commodore 64 at an educator’s discount. I started programming little images in BASIC. A few years later, two things happened: Disney opened up MGM studios as an attraction at Disney world, and Commodore came out with their 128 which had better graphics, more haptic input, and the ability use MIDI with my synthesizer.
While on a family vacation to visit MGM studios, I watched from a glass wall as animators integrated computer graphics with cell animation on the final sequences of Beauty and the Beast and the pre-production of Aladdin. When I came home I took up my light pen and my floppy-disk driven program on the 128 and began creating computer graphics in earnest. Within the following two years, I had won local and state championships for work in multi-media using HyperCard stacks, a script-driven laser disk player, an early paint program, and a VHS player. My largest program filled the hard drive at nearly 1 MB.
AW: You spent a few years working in the game industry with High Voltage and then Midway before going to Rhythm & Hues. What made you decide to go over to film?
JB: Film was always my goal. At the time I entered the professional workforce; most people were pretty new to 3-D as a platform for animation outside the world of academia. Going into film meant having a lot of experience and competing against 2-D people with 20 years of practice above my head. Going into video games in the Midwest, however, [at the time] required a pulse and a lot of drive. Once I joined the game industry, I found myself very challenged. I enjoyed the people I worked with, and sapped up the fast pace of technology. Games require you to keep your skills sharp, you have to be smart about how you create your assets, and you have to know quite a bit about every aspect of the pipeline. After several years, I felt like I needed to move on to film. I had kept the goal in the back of my head all that time, and while I’d fallen in love with creating games, I still wanted to work on feature animation.
AW: What would you say was your biggest hurdle in going from working as a technical artist at Midway to working as a rigging and technical animation supervisor at Rhythm & Hues?
JB: Nothing, really… perhaps my own insecurities that I would fail were my biggest hurdle. I had built up film as a monolith to be worshiped – practically unattainable. It is an odd feeling to know you’re absolutely meant to do something and still worry that other people won’t recognize it.
I remember discussing that I was going to leave [Midway] with my producer so that I could go to Rhythm & Hues. I hadn’t even applied yet. When I was hired at Rhythm, I found the transition to me the most natural thing in the world. I had been scripting real-time lighting effects in our game engine right before I came to my interview. My notebook happened to contain some waveforms I’d been working on for a short-circuiting florescent lighting effect. I was applying for a position that Rhythm calls technical animation, and they were experimenting with fake fur simulation (called harmonics) on Garfield I. The supervisor got really excited, and I received the benefits of luck.
AW: Could you tell us a bit about some of the recent technologies and techniques you’ve been working with?
JB: This past year I worked a lot with motion control. In contrast to motion capture where technicians take data in, motion control is the process of pushing data out to control machines. This process is used for multiple passes of camera work that integrate actors with CG environments (think Harry Potter riding the hypogryph.) It is a very orchestrated, very precise set of steps that require months of preparation and more months of post cleanup. I had to learn how to take camera data from one set and make it work for a blue screen set without killing the talent [Will Ferrell] riding a bucking saddle 15 foot up in the air.
Another internal project this year involved creating skin for CG characters that closely mimicked crocodile skin over muscles, bones, and fat. I worked with Matt Derksen who supervised rigging on “The Incredible Hulk”. We took the concepts he had developed on that show and pushed them even further. This created a few technical challenges that the programming staff had to help out with. A lot of what I’ve been learning recently, when trying to develop new techniques, is that I often need to ask multiple departments for help. When I share the idea or the challenge, the solution others come up with is often much better than anything I would have come up with on my own.
AW: With the Motion Control process, could you talk about some of the software you used? Was any of it off the shelf or was a lot of it developed in house?
JB: We used our in-house software called Voodoo. Also, I wrote a lot of the custom scripts needed to process the data.
AW: Is there anything really cool in the world of technical art that you’ve wanted to toy with but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
JB: A lot of ideas pop in my head. Now, though, instead of trying to develop them myself (which is always a slave to my schedule) I tend to run over to our R&D department, or software department, or another TD and say, “Hey! Could we do this?” Then they make it happen very quickly. I still get to R&D a lot. I still get to make tools, but it’s very unproductive for me to try to tackle big tests on my own.
In my personal life, I’ve started putting more time into learning the more traditional concepts of film making. I think I’m in more of a learning phase at the moment.
AW: You mentioned developing things yourself. As a rigging and technical animation supervisor, do you find yourself doing a lot of scripting? If so, are you working with common languages like Python, C#, Lua, etc. or are you more so working with scripting systems tied to in-house tools?
JB: I mainly use our in-house scripting language. It’s called Parsley. Otherwise I have experience in C and Smalltalk, but we’re migrating toward Python, C shell, and of course Perl. People who know those languages have an advantage.
AW:What are the some skills and experiences you expect from someone trying to enter Rhythm & Hues as a TD?
JB: Laughing… what kind of TD do you mean?
I would expect each applicant to be a team player. I would expect them to have some traditional skills and a passion for learning technology. The TD should have some taste of all the other positions they’re not applying for, and they should have worked on a few group projects. I’d prefer they really enjoy film or games; it’s not a prerequisite, but it helps to develop a common language for communicating changes and client needs.
I’m guessing you meant the following though:
Rigging: strong engineering skills, experience using scripting or code and a desire to adapt from one language to another, intimate knowledge of multiple commercial packages in rigging and at least one other discipline, a solid foundation in human and animal anatomy, and a desire to support other departments.
Technical Animation: a background that includes physics, experience with physical simulation, experience in multiple commercial packages, some background in animation, a strong desire to explore and adapt, and a desire to support other departments.
Technical Artist: strong mechanical skills, some scripting ability, a desire to intimately learn and adapt to multiple softwares, skills in modeling, rigging, uv layout, texture painting and lighting, and possibly an overwhelming compulsion to do whatever is needed to get a project done.
AW: I suppose my question about expectations for TDs came out not exactly as I intended. :D: A lot of the people on tech-artists.org are in the games industry, and it is always interested to learn about what their counterparts are doing in other industries. Can you outline any differences you experienced working as a technical artist at a game company as compared to working as a technical director at a film company? Team sizes are obviously a bit different and the needs in the pipelines are a bit different, so a bit of insight into this would be fantastic.
JB: Technical artists need a wider variety of skills. They need to be experts in software and good at modeling, lighting, texturing, and rigging. They are responsible for being the interface from code to artist.
Technical animators need to understand more about motion. They may not need to know anything about the pre-production pipeline (before animation.) Technical animators need to have a tool set that allows them to complete shots.
AW: Thanks a ton for your time and sharing your experiences with everyone on TAO!