26-07-2016 Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

When I began doing 3D there weren't any forums or projects to download like there are today, the Internet was very young so it was a bit of a struggle in the beginning, what you knew or found out was like gold dust.

In this interview Jason Edwards who's currently a Senior Modeler at Windmill Lane VFX in Dublin, shares some of his experiences from his time in the industry.

He's worked on a wide range of projects in both television and film a lot of the things he talks about in this interview as well as some tips and tricks on how to land a job can be very helpful for those of you who are looking to get that first foot in the door at the moment.

It's also an interesting read for hobbyists to get a bit of an insight into the production pipelines that 3D applications like Maya are ultimately used for.

First off Jay, how did you get started in 3D?

Well, first of all (and trying not to sound too blasé) I always knew even way back in the days of school that working in the film industry was where I would end up.

Generally I consider myself to have been very lucky though as I didn’t go about this in the more traditional manner by going to a college or a university to learn 3D like a lot of people can do today. 3D was virtually unheard of in these places back then in the early to mid 80's, and despite early computers such as the Spectrum and Commodore 64, it really was still all very hush hush with only a handful of companies like Disney and Lucas Film who were busy getting ready to pave the way.

For me it really was a case of being in the right place at the right time as I was doing caricature drawings of people in the work place - I was given an opportunity to learn Photoshop all because I could draw. So from here you could say I started my digital career with Photoshop 3.0 back in 1994 and became a retouch artist, working with retouching and restoring very old photographs.

The 3D side of things didn't happen for me until almost two years later as I had bought Computer Arts Magazine, which is now called 3D World, for some Photoshop tips and tricks. Inside they had a gallery of images that were produced in 3D software called Electric Image and Alias PowerAnimator (the latter being the precursor to Maya and StudioTools).

I recall one image was a cut scene still from the original Wipeout game on the Playstation. I was sold pretty much there and then. I wanted to make images like this, I just needed to find out how. A few issues later there was a free 3D package on the CD, so I began the long process of learning at home by printing out the entire 300+ page PDF file and painstakingly going through that. Around the same time I had the opportunity to visit The Magic Camera Company at Shepperton Studios in 1995/96 to see how they were doing stuff with Lightwave on GoldenEye. To me at this point it all still seemed out of reach because it looked like the only way to learn this was to be on the inside.

Just as a side note, one of the guys at The Magic Camera Company back then would later on actually become my 3D Supervisor at Cinesite in London, its a funny old world isn't it!!

In the summer of 1997 I finally managed to find a 3D animation course and enrolled - I didn't need telling twice. At this time as well the original Star Wars films had just been released as special editions with all new digital content so after seeing those I really knew where I wanted to go with my career. I'd always been a huge fan of these films as a kid and dreamed of working as a model maker in the industry but I never knew how to do it. Thankfully I passed the 3D course and then about a year or so later I landed my first job as a 3D artist, it was on a 3D comic strip that was produced for one of the UK's biggest tabloid newspapers. I was on my way.......

26-07-2016 Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

How does a typical day in the life of a Senior Modeler at Windmill Lane VFX flow?

It can be busy for sure. On a daily basis I have to report directly to the 3D CG Supervisor. In most studios you will have a lead modeler as well as a senior modeler but in our case at Windmill there’s just myself, the senior modeler, who is leading the charge with the other modelers. Once my day gets underway, I try to take time out early on and talk to the other modelers. We discuss problems and techniques on how to make or improve various aspects of a model, we also try and decide with the CG Supervisor what will be seen in a shot so we don't add too much or too little detail. Generally we add as much as we can in the time we are given, it's better to have too much detail rather than too little, that way you will have the choice to remove the excess geometry instead of worrying that you haven't got enough.

Problems for us can arise from concept art, something that looks cool on paper may not translate very well into 3D. The modeling pipeline is constantly evolving. I'm always looking for new ways to keep the models looking great but with minimal geometry, just so we can get stuff through the pipeline easier. In addition to this I'm always experimenting with my meshes and looking for better ways to deal with the geometry and make life easier for the next guy or gal in the pipeline. It pays to be one step ahead.

it has to work like a symphony if you will. It's all about team work at the end of the day

I recently came up with an idea for multiple object sculpting in Maya without resorting to instanced geometry, as I found that it’s something can cause problems in a pipeline on occasion. I sat with one of our technical guys who is an absolute genius at scripting and he wrote this neat little thing for me that is now a part of our modeling pipeline. If I think something like this is of use and the guys can utilise this sort of thing to save them time, then great - I’m happy. I'm always looking to learn things, so it's nice when the guys can show me something new as well. The day can also consist of talking to the texture guys to discuss various aspects of a model. Modelers group, parent or combine parts of a model for reasons that are unbeknown to a texture artist, it could be an animation rig related issue so objects may need to be kept in a certain order, so everything needs to be kept in order before passing it on down the pipeline. - it has to work like a symphony if you will. It's all about team work at the end of the day.

What would the Junior Modelers at Windmill Lane VFX have to say about you if we asked them you think?

Haha, good one. Seriously, I hope anyone on the team would say nice things, not just the juniors. I am not perfect in any way, but I like to think I'm pretty level headed when it comes to communicating with them. You have to trust and respect the team around you, that way, and hopefully you gain a little of the same in return.

26-07-2016 Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

What kind of Maya skills are important to land your first job?

Skills wise, know the tool set as best you can and what it's intended for. I wouldn’t expect anyone to know everything, but learn as much as you can as it can only go in your favour at the end of the day. As with everything in Maya, there is a 101 ways to do one thing. This is a slight exaggeration of course, but once you learn the tool set you tend to find what works for you as an individual. A lot of companies write their own scripts to help you along to do specific things, so be prepared to learn new things as well. A good showreel is obviously very important and then your CV. These are the first things a company sees about you so make an impression. Show an understanding of good modelling and what makes the mesh clean - show edge flow and wireframe renders. Always show what you are applying for, if you are going for a modeling and texturing job, make sure that’s what is on your reel, keep it to the point.

What are the most important things in character modeling?

As with everything in modeling, reference is king. You can never have enough. I say this a lot to people on the forums and even the guys in the office. But with character modeling, reference aside, a good understanding and knowing what makes the human form is critical. Its great to get some nice hi-res image planes into a scene to build from but as these are two dimensional you need to add depth so having a knowledge of proportions, where muscle and fat are placed and how it all connects is really the key. I can't stress this enough.

I really recommend carrying a sketch book to doodle images. 2D is is a great way of learning the human form, it’s all there in front of you for free - light, shadow, shapes and silhouettes. Study these things in 2D and the translation to 3D will follow suit a lot easier. Its really about your observations and building upon them.

When I began doing 3D there weren't any forums or projects to download like there are today, the Internet was very young so it was a bit of a struggle in the beginning, what you knew or found out was like gold dust. But after doing the college course I just immersed myself into it and practiced day in and day out. Once the forums began to appear on the web I started putting work on them. I think it was around 2003 that I actually started posting on Simply Maya on a regular basis, it seemed like a cool place to be, as some of the other forums were a little too edgy. I really wanted the constructive feedback, good or bad, so I could move forward. I think that because I did this and I really wanted it so badly, it helped me improve a lot quicker.

How did you land your first job in the industry?

My first job in the TV industry came from being made redundant at the start of the collapse of the world economy a few years back. I was doing the 3D comic gig at the time when myself, the team and a couple of hundred other staff were put out of work because of cost cuts. But luckily, not too long afterwards I was picked up by the company Redvision to do the "Headcases" show. Despite the shock at the time I now look back at that chain of circumstances and say ' it was meant to be' as I'm now finally working on movies, which is what I always wanted to do.

26-07-2016 Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

Can you tell us a bit about some of the projects you've worked on?

I've worked on various projects over the years, it hasn't all been movies. I've done a fair bit of television work prior to that, as well as more multimedia related 3D work ranging from 3D comic strips to video tutorials for your goodselves at Simply Maya.

I must have created over a five hundred blend shapes alone for the characters I made

The most notable project for television was "Headcases", which was a comedy show making fun at politicians and pop stars who are in the media spotlight. I was a character modeler on that show and it was a great experience. Following that I did a couple of shows for Discovery Channel. The one that stands out for me was "Into the Universe" with Stephen Hawking. The company Redvision with whom I was hired to help with the show really showed their trust in my abilities, not only as a modeler but also a concept artist. I was given the task of designing alien creatures and then building and texturing them. I really enjoyed myself there and will be forever grateful for that opportunity. I also modeled the majority of hard surface vehicles for that show.

Following on from there, I went to one of London's big VFX facilities, Cinesite, where I was a character modeler for the movie "Marmaduke" for around 10 months. People cringe when it comes to making these talking dog movies, but I can tell you it's hard work trying to make it all come together. Getting a dog to look like it's talking naturally is not an easy thing to do, there's a lot of work involved in this. I must have created over 500 blend shapes alone for the characters I made. Following on from that I worked on the feature film "John Carter of Mars", which is due for release in 2012.

Which was the largest production you ever worked on?

I'd say "John Carter of Mars". That would be what I would call the largest production, but in terms of the scale of work I wouldn't say I did a massive amount as the team was just huge in the modeling department. It must have been 50 of us at least. As the work is so spread out it's worth noting that sometimes you don't always get to do the 'cool' stuff, regardless of your skill set, a lot of the time you are just in the trenches getting props made big or small. If anyone is interested in knowing more about the movie, look up the Edgar Rice-Boroughs books series - "The Princess of Mars".

However the largest amount of work I've ever done, would have to be the movie I'm on now which is called "Lock Out". As the senior modeler I can actually say that now I'm getting to make the cool stuff - I'm building alot of the hero assets for the movie. I really can't elaborate any more than that about the film, except I'm thoroughly enjoying myself so do keep an eye out for it in a year or so.

What do you think potential employers are looking for?

Do you have any advice you'd like to give to people who are currently searching for work that might offer some help on the way?

What people need to be aware of is that there are hundreds of applications sent to VFX houses EVERY day. They are inundated - seriously, I'm not kidding. I have witnessed this first hand and for the supervisors to find that one person to fit the bill of any one position takes a fair bit time, constantly looking through piles of CV's and reels. It takes ages, which is why on a job advert it usually has a closing date along way down the line.

Every employer wants the best person for the job - it's that simple. I'm not just talking about the guys at the top, I'm talking right through to junior levels. In a nutshell, if your reel makes an impression, then you'll get a call - period. But it all takes time so be prepared as it can be very frustrating when you don't hear anything at all. One thing to keep in mind though, it only takes one job to get your foot in the door, the rest will follow....

26-07-2016 Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

We see a lot of questions from people about their showreel. Any advice you can give as to what makes a good reel?

The reel is what will show you off as an artist and give an employer a taste of what you can give to them. We can't all have "Avatar" or "The Dark Knight" models on our reels so you have to give the best you can with what you have. Always put your best and most recent work first. Be brutal with the editing and don't fill it with clutter, your CV will have all the other details of things you've worked on. Also if you haven't worked on anything at all and want to get that first foot in the door the same principles apply, but just don't go putting a tutorial you bought online on your reel, as it doesn't count. I've seen this happen as well.

We can't all have "Avatar" or "The Dark Knight" models on our reels so you have to give the best you can with what you have.

One thing that I've found very useful is to do an accompanying list of the shot breakdown from the minute the reel starts. Even if you did a part of a shot that lasted only five seconds of a movie put down in the breakdown exactly what you did, and if you have the elements in passes put that in so the employer can visualize each stage of what you did and not what the animator or lighting TD did. I saw a reel recently that had "Iron Man 2" digi doubles on it, and as the artist had only made the legs on the model it only showed the legs - so using this as an example, keep it to the point.

We think you got an amazing resemblance with the real world Gordon Ramsay in your tutorial model. What's are the main things to think about when you create caricatures of a person like this?

Well, I've drawn many friends over the years in the same manner and I think it's a combination of both the person's charisma as well as their looks. Ramsay has a very weathered face with lots of features and his personality is well....you know, fiery! So I think when you know a bit about a person and how they are it makes life a little easier to create them.

I recall on "Headcases" making Katie Holmes (Tom Cruise's wife) and she was so hard to do, I think it took five goes before we were happy with it. Although she has a nice face with big brown eyes and a button nose, she is actually very plain overall and that's what made it hard to do, she has no immediately striking features to exaggerate, whereas Madonna and Amy Winehouse have so much character they are actually very easy to do.

26-07-2016 Industry Insights Maya Modeling - An Interview with Jason Edwards

Tell us a bit more about working on the Headcases TV Show.

Working on the "Headcases" series was great fun. No one project is the same, as some can be quite frustrating and others more technical, but this was one of the fun ones to do. The whole studio was in fits of laughter throughout the day while we were making it. The whole concept of the series came about because the director Henry Naller wanted to update an old series from the 80's called "Spitting Image" which at the time had the caricatures crafted from latex and foam so they had limitations of only being operated from the hips upwards, a bit like "The Muppets". Anyway, it was our job to bring it all up to date and create everything entirely in CG.

As with most productions we had two concept guys on the project, Mark Reeve and Warren Osbourne. Mark was actually a character artist on the original "Spitting Image" show and was brought in to do the character design and concepts in the London Studio, whereas Warren was designing environments in the Manchester Studio.

I was actually the only 3D character guy in the studio in London, most of the other guys were FX guys or animators. On a daily basis I would pretty much build the characters for the show, while there were four others building them in Manchester. It was interesting as they would have to send the finished models down to Mark to sign off. He was very thorough in his design and if anything was out of place, it was no go, and I would correct them with Mark over my shoulder checking the design while I worried about topology. I have to say I was a little bit surprised at some of the geometry we were getting, it was a little messy.

Usually though, the character models would take around 3 -4 days max depending on the design, I would then UV them for texturing, then in turn they would go off for rigging to be readied for animation. It was a pretty straight forward process. One of the TD's came up with a great way of doing facial expressions with five wrap deformers and a handful of phoneme expressions - it needed to be done like this because we had so many characters and had we stuck to the more traditional way we would never have finished in time for the deadline.

Finally Jay we want to ask you what do you do in your spare time?

Spare time is a bit of a rarity right now because of work commitments. But when I have some spare, I usually try and take full advantage of it. Apart from spending time with my family I'm actually very keen on fishing, so if we have a day of not doing anything as a family, I'm straight in the car before first light and sitting at the gates of the local fishery before they have even opened. I'm also a bit of a comic geek and for the last few years I have been creating a 3D graphic novel. But as with everything else right now its on the back burner because of work.

Maya has been in my life for a fair few years now so it's part of who I am as well as what I do. I am one of these guys that will turn the PC back on in the evening even after a full day of it. Even though I'm working in films and we do have access to some very nice things to make our work easier I still believe in getting back to the grass roots of modeling to give yourself an edge and stay sharp. And of course there's always something new to learn!

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us here at Simply Maya.

For those of you who are interested in chatting more with Jay he can be found on our forums, for some more of his art you can also check out his personal website where you'll find the 3D graphic novel, Outlaws Tales, which he's currently working on amongst many other things. If you're interested in learning more about modeling in Maya from Jay we have several tutorials he's made on the site, one of them is Chef Ramsay which was also mentioned in the interview.

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