22 July 2014

Zoe Cranley, CG Supervisor

Zoe Cranley is CG Supervisor at Double Negative.

After taking a degree in Computer Visualisation and Animation, Zoe joined Dneg as a Render Wrangler in 2005. She progressed through roles as Matchmove Artist, Generalist TD, Lighting TD, Lighting Lead to CG Sequence Supervisor. Zoe spent the last two years working as CG Sequence Supervisor and CG Supervisor in Dneg Singapore before returning to Dneg London this summer.

How did you get into the business?

I always knew I wanted to do something artistic as I have a total love for anything to do with pencils or paint. But as much as I loved art, I also had a niggling passion for computers. Growing up with brothers meant our weekends were spent playing on our Super NES (I was always forced to be the girl character which were stereotypically not as good as everyone else – why Nintendo why?!!) Anyway! For a long time I had dreams of designing the next Super Mario Bros game. However, that was quickly forgotten once I watched Toy Story for the first time. I knew this was it; I wanted to make that. I was fascinated that something beautiful/funny/creative could be created by computers. Instantly I wanted to know how they made it. From then on, that was it; I focused my a-levels towards achieving a place on the course I knew had a great reputation – Bournemouth University. I was lucky to discover at a young age that I wanted to pursue my passion as a career. Not everyone has that until much later in his or her lives and I completely respect that, I was just lucky that I knew then and there, so could focus my degree to that exact vocation. Whilst at university, I made some early contacts with companies and I was even more lucky to get hired shortly after graduating by Dneg London.

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?

Sometimes I wish I had listened to my art teachers who told me that it was too rash to decide so early on which direction in the art field I wanted to take. At the time, Art Foundation degrees were very popular, but I was quite determined with my chosen degree course. In hindsight, although I know I made the right decision I now also appreciate how a year studying other artistic fields would have been beneficiary. Especially as VFX literally can be anything and is so artistic, so having that training in textiles, illustration, photography, graphic design, painting, life drawing can be a real benefit. After all at the end of the day we are artists, our tool is just a computer rather than a paintbrush. So we need all the same creative and artistic skills as a painter would – we need to learn to be able to study form, light, movement, anatomy, space, perspective etc. Maybe I’ll go back and do one now ;)

I also would have studied more maths and physics, these subjects play a huge part in the re-creation of reality.

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

You won’t have a VFX career over night. What we all do is very complex and challenging so it takes time and experience. But whatever job you are doing be proud to be doing it and to be a part of an amazing team. Be proud that you work amongst colleagues whose work blows your mind. Be proud to be a VFX artist and to work in this amazing industry!

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

My God, there are so many! There are those we have naturally which include communication, intuition, sensibility, awareness of space, natural instinct, organisation etc., very few people have all these skills. But they can all be learnt and we can all teach ourselves to be better at them, just as you can learn about perspective, lighting, form, shading, programming, and sculpting.

A big role in CG, I would have to say, is trouble shooting and being good at problem solving. You’ll come across a few problems in your VFX career, that I can promise ;)

I also think being able to be self-critical comes in handy! Your work will be reviewed by a number of artists and supervisors, being able to look, learn, improve and spot mistakes goes a long way to help reduce the amount of inevitable kickbacks you will get. Also what comes with that is accepting there will never be just one single version – v01 is a myth.

Overall though, VFX is not about being good at just one thing, there are many, many aspects you need to master. I’m still only scratching the surface! So even if it’s not natural to you, they can all be worked on.

How do you start lighting a shot?

I look. I study everything about the shot. I look for every single lighting clue possible in the plate. Sun direction, intensity, shadow direction, shadow density, key/fill ratio, highlights etc. The clues are in the plate. You can only start adding CG into a plate when you know what you are adding into. Personally, I always like to start lighting to reality – so gaining as close a match to the plate as I can. I do this so I always have a marker to come back to, and also because I then have full working knowledge of the set exactly as the practical lighting team would have done. The shot can go in so many different directions, depending on creature design, story telling, artistic direction, environment design. In order to do this though, you have to know what you are dealing with and have a working knowledge of the set lighting so that you can make informed changes.

I also try to get my hands on any reference that I can. Whether that is grey or chrome reference spheres they specifically shot; HDRIs captured; set drawings or even chatting with those on set. Witness cameras can hold some absolute gems. On John Carter for instance, on one of the sequences, I just couldn’t understand why the lighting on the CG didn’t match when the light rig was set up exactly to the plate. We had perfectly captured HDRIs so I was baffled! It was only when I looked at the witness camera footage, which was used for motion capture, that I noticed a huge bounce card sitting to the right of the character! It was not in the HDRI taken later once the set was cleared, and it was not in the plate as it was off frame to the right. I was like Bingo!! Once I placed a replica bounce card in the scene that was it, everything suddenly fell into place. So gather everything possible – you may have to ask around as often it’ll be hidden deep within a folder that may just be for 2D or matchmoving and no-one thought it would be useful for the lighting department. I see lighting as a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle, find all the pieces and then you can see how to piece it together to make a beautiful picture!

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

There are some great courses out there – Bournemouth University, Teeside University, and Escape Studios all in the UK. There are some great schools here in Singapore too. I see some great talent coming out from some schools in Japan and also the Vancouver Film School. But there are also a number of great online resources now available – fxphd, Digital Tutors and Gnomon all continue to offer fantastic courses.

After study there is nothing like experience, so if you can get within the doors of a facility you have experience and knowledge at your fingertips.

The worst and best thing about your job?

The best thing and worst thing about a job for me is wrapping a project. The satisfaction and exhilaration of finishing a project after a long hard few months is like nothing I have ever experienced. You feel an immense amount of exhaustion, relief, and a huge sense of achievement when you hear that final ‘Final!’ and then seeing the finals reel. Seeing your final accomplished work, that’s a feeling like none other. But this leads to a final feeling of farewell that, for me, is the worst. Over the years, months, days, late nights you form a great team, (VFX would be impossible without team work); you form some great bonds and friends. Finishing, and knowing you will be moving onto a new team and a new assignment, and no longer working on the shows can be heart-breaking. I joke about ‘post show depression’ as once it is over you feel lost and a bit hopeless after the work you have given you heart and soul for months no longer needs you. But its ok, it doesn’t last long, before you know it you are onto your next!

I also have to say another great thing about my job, something I’ve experienced over the last few years, is working with junior artists and seeing them flourish and create some outstanding work in sometimes very difficult situations. Seeing them move upwards into more challenging roles, taking on more responsibilities and developing into great artists is a true pleasure and makes me very proud to work in their teams.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

From Arjun Singh: Hi! What has been the toughest sequence you’ve worked on?

I have to say that in all honesty I cannot single out a sequence. Every sequence has its challenges, each very different from others. You have to treat each as its own, never comparing, never looking back. Just dealing with the sequence you are facing at the time. Luckily, with each sequence you can take what you learnt from those before, but there will always be curve balls which you never saw coming! It keeps you on your toes and ensures every job is interesting. This, for me, is one of the reasons I love CG.

And do you create the entire object or just the part which will be facing the camera?

It depends – generally if an asset is used in a one off shot, we tend to build the entire building as a proxy (so it has the correct form and can be used for shadows and reflections) then we build and shade into the details as seen by the camera if we are confident it’s only seen from that angle. However, if we know we will see multiple shots from different angles then we would high res build the entire assets. It all depends on the needs of the shots and assets.

From Sumit Panchasara: Hey Zoe, My question is. I’m facing a problem to shoot HDRI for a VFX shot. Like I wanna place a CG Model in Live action footage in Sunligt. I shot footage and tracked it too but I have no idea about HDRI how to shoot with it. So I shot panorama with DSLR at 18mm Focal Length. I have applied in Maya but still not getting satisfied result. So can you please help me out in that? What kind of Lighting setting I should take care of? I have searched in Internet but didn’t get any Helpful Tips. Regards, Sumit P.

Personally, I always shoot HDRIs with a 8mm fish eye which, with 3 or 4 captures stitched together, makes a good reliable 360 latlong. Also make sure to shoot multiple exposures – I find 7 to be pretty reliable. It’s hard to know exactly what you are not getting in terms of results without seeing your set-up. But I would check your scale, outdoors generally requires a large scale light, also your final sunlight values. Lastly, I can only say to check your shading values; shading and lighting go hand in hand, if either are off you won’t get realistic results – I hope that helps!!

From Dushyant Bhardwaj: Hi Zoe, I want to ask you how you start lighting a shot in cg and how much you use GI in lighting a scene. Thanks, Dushyant.

We use a physically plausible lighting pipeline at Dneg, of which GI plays a big part. All of our shading therefore has physical properties true to real life materials, our lights also have physical properties, so having a understanding of physics and practical lighting really comes into play here.

From Arjun Chohan: Hi Zoe, my question is about how you entered the VFX industry. I have recently finished university with a 2:1 in Film and Visual Effects, and have been trying to get work in the industry. Do you have any words of wisdom to help any of us trying to enter the industry?

Make a super hot reel!

By that I mean – don’t fill it with stuff you think we want to see – you are wasting your time guessing what we may, or might not, be looking for. Don’t show us everything you learnt at university – as everyone else on your course will have done that stuff too.

Instead, show us your greatest work. The stuff you are proud of and that shows off your best. It’s a student reel and we will judge it as just that, we don’t expect to see Oscar worthy work on a reel from someone straight from uni that’s just impossible! However, what we do look for is potential, for that spark that may eventually land you working on Oscar worthy work. You need to think it’s your best work though. If you don’t think what is on your reel is good, then supervisors and those viewing your reels sure as hell won’t either!

Other than that apply early, be keen, and get your self-noticed as soon as you can. There are so many people applying to get into the industry so try to stand out. Not in an obnoxious way, but just making sure you are on the minds of recruiters. That might involve getting in contact with universities before you finish school and getting your name known. Also ask for advice; go to recruiting events that happen at your schools and take full advantage of industry professionals giving talks and lectures. Make contacts with ex-colleagues of your tutors, I think you get the drift :))

When starting out, take every job opportunity you are offered. Runners’ positions and Assistant jobs are not only great opportunities but they get you in the door, and that is one step forward than you were before! I can tell you it will not be glamorous and you will not be rubbing up to the stars! You are likely to be not even be doing VFX work but instead running errands, making tea for client meetings etc. It may seem like a long way from where you ended up at university, creating fantastic work on your final student project. No one doubts your work is great, after all that work got you the job, but now its time to prove you can do this for a living! I can vouch first hand for this, my first job at Dneg was as a render wrangler, which consisted of working night shifts to manage the render farm ensuring vital renders went through without errors at night. Most importantly, I was there to call in if the maitre-d went down or if there was any other major issues. It was a lonely job, being the only person in the office in the early hours of the morning. But, in reality, it was a great job and to this day I’m grateful I took that opportunity. During those 3 nocturnal months, I took every opportunity to learn the tools in my spare time, coming in early for shifts to learn what could potentially be the next role for me. I practised on whatever I could, even re-doing work other people had done in my own time, just so I could learn from their approved work. People were willing to show me tools and those are the people I work with today and I am eternally grateful for the time they gave me back then. Remember that you have push yourself if you want to get to the next level. There will be plenty of other people willing and ready to go to the next level so you have to have a lot of self initiative and grasp onto every potential opening.

In essence, even if what you are offered is not what you imagined as your first role in VFX, it will teach you more about a VFX pipeline than you ever got taught at university. Ultimately you have the opportunity to learn from everything and everyone around you. Having been at Dneg for many years now, I see this first hand as now as I work with a number of junior artists who started in entry level roles and they have developed a broad set of skills within a VFX pipeline. Specialism happens later. You may think a role as a Matchmover, for example, is side-tracking from a career in Animation or Modelling, but it will give you valuable lessons and experience working with cameras, lenses, 3D space, movement, anatomy… the list is lengthy! Many, if not most, of the supervisors and leads I work with at Dneg started their careers either running around Soho, or sitting lonely in a small dark room somewhere! It pays off, trust me :)

As a final note, persevere and don’t give up, if you want it enough, you will get hired!

From Darwin Muis: Hi Zoe, Since I’m from Singapore but now studying in BU, if I may request an honest opinion from you. What do you think of the standard and knowledge of VFX artists in Singapore? What’s the advantage or disadvantage they have against their UK counterparts?

It’s interesting you raise this question. The VFX industry in Singapore is still very young, this is no secret. The companies who have set up in Singapore such as Dneg and ILM have only been here a few years. The schools or universities which have setup here to teach are young also and don’t have established courses which they have been able to develop extensively for years. Many of the lecturers that I meet from schools are industry professionals brought in from outside Singapore simply because there has not been enough time or opportunity for local artists to become experienced. However, it is simply a lack of nurtured experience. The drive, passion, enthusiasm and artistic awareness is as present here as it is with artists I have worked with in London, if not even more due to its young nature.

Japan, Taiwan, and Malaysia close by who have a lot of talented VFX artists. What is interesting is seeing a number of artists from Singapore, and nearby countries, who previously moved abroad to obtain work starting to return as they are see the industry here blossom.

From Govind Krishna: Hi Zoe, Does studios have a specialization in texturing, reason to ask is because I have not seen any studio posting for a texture artist (didn’t see it on Dneg either)? I love texturing & lighting and plan to stick to that, but I’m now worried about being able to get a position as a CG texture & lighting artist. Would love to know about your opinion on this. Thanks!!

Yes absolutely. Dneg does hire for Texture Artists directly. Lighting and Texturing play a very important part together so to see you interested and keen to persevere both is great. So do not be worried! Continue to develop both, it is so important to understand how they affect each other, having a knowledge of lighting and look developments can only enhance your skills as a texture artist.

From Tan Chee Kwang: Hi Zoe, as a sequence supervisor, you seen to need to know it all. Rendering, matchmoving, lighting…etc what do you think is your strength? Which one do you think is the hardest to do?

Yes, being a supervisor does mean you have to know a broad range of skills. Knowing how they relate to each other is a also a key part of my job as VFX is such a huge team job. There is no single department more important than another, so I could not say any are harder than another. Each have their challenges and difficulties, and what might appear easy may surprise you and actually become a challenging shot or asset for a department. Every step involved, from being onset at the shoot to the final composite, is vital to process and if any step is under nourished, it can affect another department and maybe the end result.

However, I cannot know everything and could never claim to know all there is to know about CG! Animating for one, this has been known countless times to end in tears. The field of CG is just too large and forever expanding, and it takes decades, rather than years, of experience.

So, a big part and important role of a supervisor is to communicate and listen to the specialist artists within each department. I have to make a lot of decisions but I cannot do this without a large number of brilliant artists and supervisors I work with who help me make informed decisions and whom I learn from everyday also. In VFX, you never know it all! Even those who may say they do don’t! It really is about continued learning and continuing to push yourself to query and question. You also have to appreciate lots of people will be smarter and know a lot more about something than you do!

My passion, and what ultimately gives me that tingly sensation and what I am instantly drawn to when I look at an amazing VFX shot is its lighting, both practically and digitally how it has been lit. I think you are always strongest at what you are most passionate about.

How many people do you have to help you? As a supervisor do you work on the sequence also?

Yes, as much as I can. Being a supervisor is a juggling act of working on the box and delegating out to crew. I work amongst a fabulous crew here in Singapore, therefore I have little trouble delegating the work out! Yet I’m learning its also very important to remain connected to the work you are doing and sometimes the only way to do this is to get your hands dirty, so it really is a fine balancing act – which I’m still figuring out daily! As for the numbers of artists it can range depending on the show and the scope of the work. It terms of help, Singapore and London work very closely with each other, sharing tools/pipelines etc. so there is a lot that comes from miles away also.

From Mac Byers: As you’ve risen the ranks in Double Negative, what are the things you wish you could tell your younger self?

Oh God! too many things! But the main one would be, ask more of those questions you are scared about asking as you worry it makes you look stupid. No question is a stupid question. These are the best learning experiences and take great opportunity of these.

From Richard Gove: Any advice for someone new to Singapore, how has the culture and lifestyle affected your work ethic, is it different to working in the UK?

Singapore is a very different country to the UK; it is much smaller, hotter and stormier. Being smaller makes living options easier especially due to the excellent location of Dneg’s office in Singapore, right amongst some great living and schooling options. In comparison to the UK, London being such a large city, it is very common for people to live within a very wide geographical area of London and the outskirts giving most people, on average, about a 45 minute commute to work, and it is very normal for this commuting time to be over an hour. I myself used to have over an hour commute.

Yet, if you were to mention that to someone living in Singapore, they would be horrified, if you were to commute for over an hour you would cross the boarder into Malaysia! I think the average commute to our office here in Singapore is about 15 minutes, (mine is now a maximum 5 minutes!) This, I have to say, has a massive affect on my lifestyle. It’s no secret we work long hours in VFX, the complexity of our work demands that at crunch times. So being able to have a shorter commute has a huge advantage. I no longer have a long commute to get home after a long day at the office so I have more time for other things outside of work – which is hugely important in VFX, especially during those crunch times! I can vouch for a number of my colleagues who too have families reap the benefits of this.

What I also love about the Asian culture is that is makes you think differently and creatively. You are seeing new colours, textures, smells and that stimulates different visual senses from what I have been familiar with in the UK. So it mixes things up and gives you a new perspective on creativity.

I guess the final thing would be to say, working with people from a different culture, just enhances your professional aptitude. Being able to understand and adapt to the natural differences that people from another culture have from yourself is hugely important. My style and ability to supervise was completely turned on its head when I moved here, people respond and follow direction very differently. Yet it is not up to them to adapt to you, its all on you!

Oh and its hot, all year round… did I mention that already? ;)

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