22 July 2014

Adam Barnett & Raj Mahendran, Tech

This week’s profile Q&A is with two stars from our tech department; Adam Barnett and Raj Mahendran;

Adam is a Systems Engineer who maintains our computer systems, including installing and upgrading our servers, looking after our various licenses servers, and render wrangling. Raj works in the Tech Support department and spends his time managing the support ticketing system to ensure Tech queries are resolved. Raj coordinates with HR, Production and our Tech runners to ensure all new starters have the right set up to suit their role and that artist moves are completed with minimal disruption. Both support artists on various operating systems including Linux, Windows and Mac. Their roles demand great problem solving skills as they face the daily task of maximising (and improving on) the efficiency of our high spec machines and incorporating VFX’s fast-changing technology… did we mention the incredibly tight deadlines?
How did you get into the business?

Adam: I forced my way into Dneg. I was on the computer science degree at Oxford Brookes and they offered a placement or sandwich year between my second and final year of the course. Dneg did not actually offer an internship those days but I sent my CV in and, thankfully, they decided to call me in for an interview and offer me a placement. During the placement I had a number of catch ups or reviews you might even call them and on my last one my supervisor offered me a job to start when I had completed my degree. I’ve been here for four years.

Raj: My start at Dneg was different.

Adam: Because you didn’t start the internship program like I did…

Raj: Whatever

Adam: Did I mention the internship program at Dneg is still running? We take one tech intern a year. It is advertised in some university computer science departments.

Raj: I always had a keen interest in films, photography and computing and from the age of 13 I was editing my own videos. I completed a degree in Computing with German at the University of Greenwich and went on from that to complete a Masters at City University in Business Systems Analysis and Design but my passion was still VFX. Therefore, I looked for opportunities where I could use both my computing knowledge and be surrounded by the creative buzz that the VFX industry brings. Working in the Tech department at Dneg definitely gives me this.

Is there anything you wish you had done before you joined the industry which would have better prepared you for your career in VFX for Film?

Adam: A grasp of the lingo! When you first come here – if you don’t have a background in VFX – the terminology is a bit bewildering. I also wish I had a better understanding of pipeline.

Raj: Not really; the degree I did was relevant for my role in the Tech Department. The great thing is I am still learning new things at Dneg everyday which is really important for me. Yeah, computer science degrees give you the skills to understand things here. Essentially what you get from a computer science degree is a transferable skillset that you can apply in the VFX industry.

Is there any advice you would give to someone coming into the business?

Raj: You have to be dedicated in what you do, always be up for a challenge and be passionate about your work. The timescales can be really challenging at times so it is important that you cope well with pressure but also be able to enjoy your work and take pride in it.

Adam: It is a really steep learning curve when you first come into a Tech role at Dneg and you feel like you don’t know anything. Thing is, you will totally learn on the job. So much of what we work with in the Tech department is Dneg specific so you are only ever going to learn how to work with it once you are here. I guess this applies for most tech departments in VFX houses. When I started at Dneg my notepad became my best friend because I was constantly taking notes. Everyone in the tech department is really willing to help you out though. What is nice is that you soon find yourself in a position to also advise… Basically we’re a great team!

What natural skills do you think lend themselves to doing your job?

Adam: Problem solving. And lots of thinking on your feet. Being organized is vital and being sociable is pretty important too – you have to work with a lot of very different people.

Raj: Definitely problem solving skills and being organised. Those are the two key skills that are required to do well in the Tech department. Apart from that, it is also important to be friendly with a can do attitude so that you can face any problem head on.

Adam: Oh, and you need to be prepared to learn how to prioritise.

Raj: Yup, we get a lot of queries through every day so being able to prioritise things that are really urgent with those things which people say are urgent but can actually wait a bit is deadly important. Our job involves a lot of interaction with our colleagues so it is vital that you have good communication skills and that you are a good team player.

Are there any particular training / courses you’d recommend?

Raj: Knowing how to turn on a computer helps

Adam: A lot of stuff is Dneg specific but there are things you can learn that will really help you in a VFX tech department, like Linux.

Raj: There are a few good courses that can help build a background knowledge in Linux, Mac and Windows operating systems. A good computing degree is also beneficial for anyone looking to go into tech. However, I’ve found that learning on the job at Dneg is the best way to get to grips with the technical knowledge you need. You need to maintain that willingness to learn though.

Adam: Computer science degrees are really good but not everyone who works in the Tech department at Dneg has one, some people are just geniuses when it comes to computers, or have swallowed a computer at some point in their life!

The worst and best thing about your job?

Adam: People and the company – that’s the best part not the worst! The worst has to be when the pressure is really on, like when things go down.

Raj: The best thing about my job is the company itself. Dneg has a fantastic creative environment with an opportunity to meet and work with a lot of friendly, creative and inspirational people. The worst thing is having to go home at the end of the day.

Adam: Raj, you did not just say that.

Raj: It’s true!

Adam: Really the worst thing is that when one thing goes down it has a knock on effect and loads of stuff goes down. It can be hard to feel like you are not sinking and remain calm sometimes! You have to be able to handle pressure, or at least learn how to.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

From Arjun Singh: Hey guys! Just wanted to know how you manage/transfer the assets between collaborating studios? And if it’s not such a big deal, what is the general configuration of the rendering systems?

Raj: Like a lot of places we use SFTP (Secure File Transfer Protocol). We also use other secure ways of transferring files, the best way of all is the good old fashioned way; a runner taking the files personally!

Adam: We have a large render farm with many render machines with varying CPU/RAM configurations. We use Alfred as our main renderer.

From Darwin Muis: Hello, I’m sure you guys are great problem solvers. But hypothetically, if you’re asked to solve a problem within a day and you can’t come up with a good solution, what would you do?

Raj: Like you say Darwin, it is not always easy to find the perfect solution to a problem – especially with tight deadlines involved. Sometimes, we have to find the best interim solution for the short-term until we can put a more robust solution in place.

Adam: My mantra is talk to your colleagues. The flow of information in tech is very open and if no one knows, Google it!

From Jenny Moorehead: Hi! I’m doing a computing degree, but I love the artistic side of things! The year above me is currently doing real time visualisation of 3D graphics and an engine module where they choose some kind of simulation to create. My friends are writing things like rag doll physics and rendering a scene with radiosity. I cannot wait to do this part of the course, and I was wondering if this type of graphics programming is done in the tech department of double negative. It’s definitely the side of computing I’d love to get into.

Raj: The tech department at Dneg deals with technical queries, new starter setup and moving artists. The R&D department specialises in the type of graphic programming that you are interested in.

Adam: Yeah, personally I don’t do graphic things, it isn’t my cup of tea. Some of our tech team deal with application support so they have the opportunity to get involved in some of this. Like Raj said, R&D might be better suited to you as they are in charge of all the actual programming. What also might suit you is Pipe TD or ATD roles.

From Sammy Williams: I am an undergraduate studying Computer Science at the University of Utah, I have always wanted to go into VFX as a career. Once I graduate with a degree in Computer Science, what is the best way to break into the VFX industry with a degree in Computer Science? Thank you.

Raj: It depends what department you would like to work in within VFX. With a computer science degree you could work in various roles, especially in Tech or R&D. Starting in these roles is a great way to get your foot in the door and you can then explore what other creative aspects of the VFX industry interest you.

Adam: Tech, R&D, Pipe TD and ATD are all jobs that you would have some great skills for from your degree. Although for the TD jobs it would be useful to get a working grasp of Maya. Remember you are not expected to remember everything when you come to interview, but you do need to show a willingness to learn and an acceptance that it will be a steep learning curve. A great starting point is running. At Dneg we have runners and tech runners. Our tech runners are not necessarily people with a computer science background, they often want to be VFX artists but have shown the promise to learn a new skill on their way there. Tech runners have to be prepared to learn on the job and study. We have a wiki page that has everything on it from how to turn a computer on for our new recruits. Tech runners also tend to be pretty fit as they will be working on a lot of the artist moves!

From Richard Tricky Harper: So Raj, how did you get so awesome?

Raj: I was born that way!

From Laurent Alibo: I would be so happy to work again in a VFX house IT department, any system or IT Support position available soon in yours?

Raj: Laurent, make sure to keep looking out on the website for new Tech roles that will get posted up as soon as there is one available at Dneg. Also, it won’t hurt to send in your CV to our Recruitment team just on spec, email is jobs@dneg.com.

From Gao Heng: Can you give us a “A day in the life of..”? What are the daily challenges and what’s routine?

Raj: Have breakfast to get your energy levels up.

Adam: The department tend to start early and we all eat breakfast together. Breakfast is important. Actually, we tend to all eat lunch together too.

Raj: Actually mealtimes are really the only thing that doesn’t change on a day to day basis. Our daily roles vary drastically from installing new apps to issuing someone a new Wacom tablet. The biggest challenge we had recently was orchestrating the company’s move into our shiny new office on Great Portland Street. This was a mammoth task as the company was spread over three locations in London and we had to move over 900 people and all our machines without causing any major disruption to work. It was a major logistical challenge.

Adam: It was tough, like seriously tough. It is really good to have the whole company under one roof now though and, if anything, all the hard work paid off because it is much easier logistically for us to have our artists under the same roof when we are dealing with technical problems.

Raj: Every morning, unless there is some unexpected emergency, starts with email time. Every morning I go through my inbox and action all the issues and queries that artists have. Every email that gets sent into the tech department gets turned into a ticket that we then prioritise. The tech team can see the all the current tickets and can pick the ones they immediately know how to fix or how to help. Part of my job is to assign the tickets no wants to deal with to members of the tech team to action.

Adam: Aside from dealing with emails normally plastered with the word ‘urgent’, a huge part of my day is spent installing the new applications requested by the Heads of Departments (like 3D, 2D and Animation). Most of these applications have to be restricted with a wrapper normally because we have a limited number of licenses so want a specific group of artists to be able to use it or if it is under testing. I also have to continually upgrade applications and look for application updates.

Raj: There are so many different things that we do, but we don’t necessarily do them all on a daily basis. Like we have to look into new software and releases and prepare offsite machines and laptops but this is not something we do everyday, or at least I don’!

Adam: We also have to action direct client requests as well as deal with other client related occurrences, so I have to set up the meeting rooms for client visits. Obviously I mean I set up the technical stuff, so the projectors and polycoms, I don’t make the tea and coffee. Although I do make really good tea…

Raj: Keeping the wiki up to date is really important and is something we keep a constant eye on.

Adam: One of the most important things we do as a department aside from take part in tea roulette (!) is look after the networking and the servers making sure that the servers are not overloading and monitoring their disk usage.

Raj: Then it’s the worst part of my job, home time.

Adam: Haha, yeah…

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