22 July 2014

David Stripinis, 3D Generalist

This weeks profile Q&A is with Senior TD David Stripinis. David is a 3D Generalist, able to pop into a variety of different roles as needs be.

When David isn’t helping with bidding or tests for new shows, he is working on projects such as Man of Steel, Jupiter Ascending and Exodus.

How did you get into the business?

I used the front door.

Seriously, I’ve wanted to make movies since I was a kid. Return of the Jedi came out when I was 8 but, more importantly, a Behind the Scenes TV special on the Making of Return of the Jedi came out then too. I had no idea this was somebody’s job. To me, a job was where you put on a suit and carried a briefcase and sat in some stuffy office all day. It was like school, only without recess. Here you got to build models and then fill them with explosives. They would actually pay you for that. Of course now, with computers, we sit in a sometimes stuffy office all day staring at computers.

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?

This may sound silly, but I wish I had been in better shape. We tend to do long hours, sitting around. You get old, you get flabby. I started off flabby, and it’s only gone downhill. It’s a job that is hard on the wrists, the back, the eyes. So, get out; enjoy the sun, air and the outdoors.

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

Realise that you aren’t going to be young forever.

Wow, I’m sounding like a bitter old man aren’t I?

What I mean is a lot of people are very short sighted when they first come into the industry. I know I was. Do some financial planning. When you get your first job, save up enough money so that you can live for three months without work, money for rent, food, insurance, car payment, tax etc. Then, set aside 30% of what you make every single paycheck and put this into some kind of savings but something low risk! Even a simple savings account will do. Realise you don’t need to buy an expensive car or a new computer or whatever. That will all come eventually. Good times are great. Bad times don’t last forever, and they aren’t half as bad if you plan for them.

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

I think 3D people who have good spatial acuity tend to excel. A knack for problem solving is good. But above else, traditional art sensibilities – colour, composition, etc. – are the most important. I can teach you what various dials and gizmos in a piece of software do. It’s much harder to teach somebody what looks good.

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

I’m not big on people paying for courses in CG as they teach you the software. You don’t need to pay to learn about software. Take courses in filmmaking, photography, and/or painting. This will let you officially be a ‘student’ and get student deals on software. All the stuff you need to learn on that software comes with it, and there are tons of free forums and videos and tutorials out there. Find a mentor. If you absolutely positively NEED to learn something particular, I like the stuff from Eat3D, myself.

Oh, and for a great look at practical FX work, the Stan Winston School is amazing from what I’ve seen.

The worst and best thing about your job?’

Worst thing… hmm. Well, it is definitely not all roses. The hours can be gruelling sometimes. Not seeing friends and family, missing vacations, that’s not fun. But the absolute worst thing is still, as it always has been, that moment when Maya freezes and you KNOW it’s going to crash, and you’re like “no. no. nononononononononono!” as you see hours of work disappear because only then do you realise how long it’s been since you have saved your work.

Yeah, hate that the most.

Best thing. Well, I actually really like seeing the raw enthusiasm of all the kids. It’s really, I don’t know, invigorating. It doesn’t make me as bitter and jaded. Just stay off my lawn.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

From Dushyant Bhardwaj and Miguel Miguells:

Hi David. How are you? Here is my question. How do you start developing layouts and previz, what do you do for getting ideas and how you execute them? Will be great if you tell us about your work-flow. Thanks, dushyant

Hello David, can you describe your thought process when you receive a shot? What are the certain things you try to take from the work description? Thanks Miguel Miguell

Hi Dushyant and Miguel; I am gonna answer your questions together. The first thing you have to ask yourself on any shot is ‘why is this here? What story point is the director trying to make?’ After all, the end goal is always to tell a story. I look at any brief the director has sent, and the surrounding shots. I usually start to thumbnail out drawings, basic little storyboards to get an idea of the framing and any key moments in the shot. Then it’s a matter of getting it into the screening room as fast as possible. Even if it is really basic, you want to get it in front of the VFX supe and VFX producer to see if you’re heading down the right path. You also want to make sure you aren’t blowing the budget with some idea you had that you thought would ‘look cool’. I’m a little infamous for always doing that! From there, you start developing the shot, sometimes with the help of animation or FX or comp to get something in front of the director that hopefully he likes and can start to comment on and tweak. There’s also an element of showmanship and salesmanship that can help a shot. A little glow here, a little lens flare there, add some camera shake and boom, and a pretty basic shot can get a ‘WE LOVE IT’ reaction!

From Miguel Miguell: Hello David, can you describe your thought process when you receive a shot? What are the certain things you try to take from the work description? Thanks.

Usually, you’re going to get at least a napkin sketch, or a reference to an existing shot – ‘Make it just like ak150, only on a wider lens’ or the like. I usually keep a “look book” of all the work the director and DP have done in the past. If you can talk directly with the client – which can prove logistically challenging – you can often get an idea of what they’re after simply by referencing old films. A ‘Oh, so kinda like that shot in Saturday Night Fever?’ can get you closer to final faster than you going off for three days in your own little bubble.

From Ari Avraham Marrache-Fischel: What should a Generalist’s Demo Reel focus on??

True generalists are a rarity these days. You have to be good at a LOT of things, but not EVERYTHING. For example, I may be one of the most pathetic texture artists at Dneg. So you find things you are better at and celebrate those.

In terms of a reel, it’s the same thing. If you are great at modeling, texturing, lookdev and animation, but couldn’t rig if your life depended on it, find a dedicated rigger to build you something and acknowledge his/her contribution in your reel. Never put anything on your reel that will detract from your work. Doing this will show you are able to work with others, vital in our industry. And knowing what you don’t know is as important as knowing what you do know.

From Mathias Schulenberg: What level of knowledge is needed in the separate aspects of a generalist? Is it enough to know the basics or do you need an in-depth understanding?

This is related, but I want to give it a separate answer. Larger facilities tend to be very speciality oriented. It is not just ‘I am an FX TD’ or ‘I am a particle TD’ but it is ‘I am a fluids TD’. So, if you were to score skills from 1-10, you would get a 10 in fluids, a 9 in particles, an 8 in FX – but maybe a 0 in textures or lookdev for example. Generalists need basic skills in everything, and should excel at certain disciplines, but will probably not be at the level someone 100% focused on that skill will be. And there is nothing wrong with that. At smaller facilities, or on smaller shows at larger facilities, you strive to find a balance of people so that a high level of competence is there for all tasks, which you can sometimes do with just two or three people.

From Christopher M. Anthony: Hi David – did Peter Jackson have to triple flash at 48fps stereo for The Hobbit… or something?

Ah. A full on stereography nerd question! What Chris is referring to is how frames are displayed when projected in a stereo presentation. To get the best stereo presentation frames are usually ‘triple flashed’ or displayed three times for each eye. So LRLRLR 24 times each second, or 144 ‘flashes’ a second. When you move into ‘HFR’ territory you need 288 or even 360 ‘flashes’, which is beyond the display rate for most commercial cinema projectors installed now. So they move to a double flash display, displaying 196 ‘flashes’ per second, which some people argue isn’t as effective.

From Mac Byers: Hi David; Question 1: Whats the work and play atmosphere like at Double Negative. Is is different between departments?

At Double Negative it’s not so much about department that determines work/play but your room. We had a great room on Man of Steel, where we all took great delight in making fun of each other, had Bad Dance Contests on Friday afternoons, and generally kept each others spirits up. We even recreated the Superman logo with empty soft drink bottles filled with coloured water. I’ve also been in rooms where everybody just keeps their earphones on and the lights off. Each is a valid way of working. Keep in mind, you’re being paid to work, not play. Enjoying your time at work and having fun is important, but not if it impedes your work, or the work of your colleagues. It’s always important to remember they might be on a deadline or trying to get something done while you are trying to learn how to dance Gangnam Style… Yes, we tried that on Man of Steel. It didn’t work out so good.

Question 2: As you have such a large range of abilities, have you ever taken a shot from start to finish? If not, would you ever want to? Thank you for your time!!

Taking a shot all the way through in can be fun, but rare, especially on big shows. I also feel it is important to get a fresh set of eyes on a shot. They’re emotionally distant from the shot and will see things that you don’t.

From Tom Selbeck: Hi David, as a generalist, how much do you have to know about specific disciplines? And how did you come to be a generalist? Grtz from the Netherlands!

I’ve always been a generalist. I’ve been at this for a while now, and you just collect skills as you go along. I like learning new stuff; I like the shiny new toys. So when Maya adds a new cloth solver, well, I just gotta go play with that! There are some things I know more than others. There are some things I’m just pathetic at at. Like I’ve said, it’s always important to know what you don’t know. Never be afraid to ask someone who knows something you don’t to show you how to do it. If you find something you wish you were better at, work on it when you can. Challenge yourself!

From Barbaros Gokdemir: Hello David, my question is about previs. During the production of a previsualisation, is the cinematographer involved in the process? If not, do you pre-lens and pre-light according to the directions of the VFX supervisor?

It depends as sometimes they aren’t even on a project yet. Sometimes they’ve already moved on to something else. But ideally, you work with both the cinematographer and/ or the director to come up with shots that fit into the films aesthetic. And sometimes you’re asked to do things that just kinda go outside the box. Usually it’s in consultation with the VFX supe, and then the director.

From Canis Lupus: Hello, what was the most difficult shot you have ever worked on? And what kind of VFX tricks do you find the biggest challenge for you?

Most difficult shot? Go see Man of Steel in June 2013! It’s in there… I find the biggest challenge is maintaining the correct emotional distance from your work. You want to care enough that you make it excellent, but you don’t want to be so invested you’re destroyed if it gets cut or changed. At the end of the day, it’s about making the client happy. That’s always the goal.

From Max Auer: Hello! Do you have an area which you are more specialised in?

Cameras. I love the language of cinema; I love camera gear. The way a shot is framed; the way light behaves on a certain film stock; a short lens vs a long lens. They all change the emotional intent of a shot.

And what part of you job do you like most?

I just love working in Previs and Postvis. They tend to be both a fantastically creative task, as well as a technical problem to be solved. Come up with a shot, figure out how to shoot it. Then take the result of that shoot, and try to figure out what the shot actually is.

From David Gray: David, in the past you have been an advocate of suggesting against young artists going into visual effects. What is your current stance given the recent turbulence?

I specifically was advising a young American artist not to go to school for VFX. The danger of Twitter – where I made the comment you are referring to – is that you only get 140 characters to explain yourself.

The truth of the matter is that the VFX industry is a very international affair. And to work internationally you need a visa. Visas require work experience and it is hard to ask someone to take on $150,000 in student loan debt, only to go into a job market where the biggest mark against you is your inability to go where the work is. I suggest getting other skills that are marketable where you are able to work. I don’t want to discourage people from going into VFX. I want to discourage people from having VFX be the ONLY thing they can go into.

From David Burbury: Hi David, What should you focus on in a showreel for an entry position for a 3D generalist at Double Negative? Would you focus on a bit of everything or mostly on matchmoving?

If you want to be a generalist, be a generalist. Work on all your skills, including matchmoving. Want to show your modeling skills? Don’t do a turn table, matchmove a camera of you walking around an empty table, matchmove it, put the model on the table. The entry level task IS matchmoving. It’s what you’ll be doing for the first 12-18 months of your career, maybe longer.

You want your reel to show two things. That you are immediately valuable to an employer in an entry level spot – aka matchmoving. But you also want to show promise and potential. There are many hundreds of people out there that can matchmove for a company like Dneg for the next 18 months. What we care about is what are we going to have you doing the 18 months after that. And the 18 months after that!

From Philip Meyer: Hey David! Wasn’t the 4th and 5th Season of SoA great? can’t wait for the 6th! Cheers from Germany.

Sons of Anarchy is always good, but I still prefer Breaking Bad!

From Pinyo Gulashart: Hi David, we have been told at university that it is hard to get into the bigger VFX houses as a generalist. Could you tell us about how you got into Dneg and what you think the strong points of your demo reel was. What do you think made you stand out from the other candidates? Also, were there anything that was brought up at the interview that you wasn’t expecting? Finally, so you think you will specialise in a discipline or do you prefer to be able to be flexible to meet the needs of each show? Thanks

Okay, this is not what you guys want to hear… I didn’t apply to Double Negative, they called me. I didn’t send a demo reel, and my interview was what I’ve heard called a ‘wear pants’ interview. Basically, the interview was just to insure them that if they hired me, I’d show up wearing pants, but I had well over a decade of experience by then…

There is no magic bullet to a demo real or interview. Sure, we have some custom tools, but none of our stuff is a magic bullet either. A demo reel just needs to show you are capable of doing the work we do. Can you look at the Tharks in John Carter and animate as well as that? Can you build a model like the ship in Les Miserables? Can you light and shade a flying Batwing that blends perfectly into photography like in Dark Knight Rises? Can you create demons who shatter into shards of obsidian like in Snow White and the Huntsman? Prove it. Prove it and put it on your reel. That’s all it takes. Oh, and wearing pants…

As to specialising… never. I’m a generalist.

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