Interview with Phil Dobree
Director of Jellyfish Pictures talks about the cg industry in London,
the Fight For Life project, XSI and what it takes to be successful as a
September, 12th, 2007, by Raffael Dickreuter
How did you get started in the cg industry and why?
|Phil Dobree, Director at Jellyfish Pictures.|
20 years ago I completed a postgraduate course in Design from the
London Institute (LCP) and immediately started working freelance as a
graphic designer. Computers were just starting to be used for graphics.
The potential for where the industry was heading in terms of taking it
a step further with not just still but moving images was clear. Excited
by the potential I enrolled on one of only 2 or 3 computer animation
courses in the UK at the time (1991) allowing me to work at weekends at
the same time. Things were slow but using the first version of 3D
Studio I was able to make a 2 minute short film on the course. It was a
lot of fun and allowed me to experiment with the potential of what
computers could do at the time. I then spent a year or two freelancing
and doing some short commercial pieces using 3DS. In 1994 I was
persuaded to come and work on a large Time Warner project similar to
Myst using Softimage. The opportunity to work with Soft was too good to
miss, and the project had some great visuals to work with.
What kind of education do you have?
I actually have a degree in History, but art was always my first
passion and I was determined to get back into something visual as soon
as I could. Hence the move into graphics and the post grad course at
the London Institute. At the time Neville Brody had just been doing
graphics there and the use of computers to do typographic design was
clear, although there was a lot of rubbish being churned out by
unqualified “budding designers” with copies of Ventura Publisher. In
1991 I studied computer animation at Epsom College of Art, at the time
no course was longer than a year in the UK for CGI.
Tell us about how you got involved in Jellyfish Pictures and what your responsibilities are with the company.
My partner, William Rockall, and I set up the company in 2001 just as
the planes were crashing into the World Trade Centre. It seemed like an
ominous time to be starting up a new company, but we had some good
clients, an idea of the type of company we wanted to set up and enough
computing power to complete the kind of projects we needed to be doing
for the next year or two. Initially there were just the two of us and a
motion graphics designer and artist. Our premise was to keep our costs
to an absolute minimum and survive for as long as we could to give the
company a strong foundation and then build slowly from there. We knew
of too many cases of companies trying to start too quickly, investing
heavily, getting into debt and struggling to make the repayments. To
survive as one of the few independent, privately owned CGI companies in
a highly competitive London market is no easy task. Reputation, quality
of work and balance are critical, it is my job to make sure that the
company gets enough work in but at the same time standards are kept as
high as possible. Budgets are always a major constraint, but never an
excuse for sub-standard work.
Fight For Life - See video clips
How is being one of the smaller companies in London and competing against the big guys?
It’s very hard, but in some ways it is an asset also! You’re always
going to be up against the resources that the larger companies can
throw at jobs when they get stuck. However they do tend to charge more
and often can’t offer the kind of value and dedication that we tend to
give to projects they would regard as small and not so important. What
is hard is getting not only clients to realise the range of skills we
can offer but also the best staff. Convincing the best animators and
compositors that we are the best place for them to work can also be a
challenge. Things are beginning to change however as people realise
that being small can be a big asset and can offer a more varied and
interesting job opportunity with the chance to work on a large variety
of tasks on a project seeing the whole pipeline and having a definite
say in the outcome of things. A small company is more like a family and
it takes time for people to get to know one another but once they do
and have worked together on projects they develop good close working
relationships and we tend to back each other up, people don’t get left
out in the cold, we’ll try to support people and get the best we can
out of them.
How may people do usually work at Jellyfish and what are the preferred kinds of projects you guys do?
We normally have between 15-20+ people working for us at any one time.
We have around 14 full time and the rest freelance: 3 Designers
(motions graphics), 5-6 3D animators, 2 compositors, 1 Systems
administrator/render wrangler, a producer and 2 supervisors.
We have tended to concentrate primarily on the TV market recently but
have done one or two film projects and a handful of commercials.
Broadcast in the UK is still a nice market to work in even if the
budgets are being terribly squeezed, forcing us occasionally into
almost impossible positions where clients ask for the earth with loose
change to pay for it. When accepting these types of projects it’s
important to do them very much with your eyes open. It’s no use moaning
there’s not enough money to do a proper job, clients don’t usually care
and want film quality shots on TV budgets. This is what we strive to do
and means that you’ve always got to look for ingenious solutions to
getting the results in less time. Having completed some very
challenging projects and built pipelines and techniques we are now in a
strong position to take on more film work. For a company our size it is
easier to take a broadcast project, put our stamp on it and make it
What work did you guys do that helped you land the Fight For Life project?
We were up against a number of other companies to win the pitch.
Eventually what really impressed them was a render of a 3D animated
heart. It was critical that the series had cgi which was totally
convincing in the context of hand held dramatic actuality in trauma
situations. The CGI needed to be part of the narrative and not break
from it. In order to achieve this, the inside of the body needed to be
We had worked on a number of medical shots before and this helped in
the general pitch. We had also done some nice graphical x-ray/scan
types of shots. However coming up with a live looking internal organ
was the deciding factor.
Explain the production process of Fight For Life
The task was three fold to create a pipeline for our “trauma vision” or
x-ray type shots; the photo-real internal organ shots and the super
close up microscopic shots.
We started out with as accurate a 3D model of the human body and all
its internal organs as we could find. This we got from Zygote, who
specialise in 3D human internal organs. The model we got from them
needed a lot of work. It had all the important elements, however as is
often the case a lot of the models were still triangulated and there
was a lot of clean up work involved. Because we were match moving x-ray
type shots to live action “real patients and doctors” we had to have
human models of every type both male and female. Different ages,
ethnicities, pregnant, etc. We started out with this one basic model
and then had to adapt it across all these types. This was going to be
the basis of all the X-ray type shots we had. Not only did the
different sizes and types need to be adapted, but they all had to be
rigged. Normally we are used to just rigging a skin of a character,
here it had to include incredibly dense internal organs, muscles,
circulation, skeletal system and nerves. Without these the shots would
be pointless, they needed to show the internal workings and traumas
going on in the patients. We set up around 6 passes for each body
system often making scenes for the compositors with around 80 passes
for these trauma-vision shots.
For the photo-real internal body shots we started out getting accurate
models of every internal organ we’d be working with. Because we were
very close up on these shots we needed to have very good detail in the
models and textures. We worked closely with medics and researchers on
the series to ensure that we were as accurate as we could be. We looked
at countless footage of operations and images of internal organs.
Anyone working on the series needed to have a strong stomach. We bought
pig’s hearts, lungs, livers and other delights from the butcher.
Digital pictures and scans were taken and used as the basis of all the
textures. Using 3D paint packages we were able to add considerable
detail and displacement maps. At the same time we were developing
animation techniques for getting realistic movement. Jayson King worked
with the other animators to come up with a method that worked best. We
decided to use syflex to give us secondary movement and elasticity to
the skin texture of many organs; particularly the heart and lungs which
needed to be sufficiently jelly like and visceral.
Lighting texturing and rendering were developed by lead lighting TD
Marco Iozzi using shaders largely developed during the pitch process.
We setup around 14 passes for most of the shots involving realistic
organs and scripts were set up in Shake to composite.
We shot separate elements on hi-speed video which helped to add the
last touches of condensation and particles giving a feeling of
claustrophobia and being in an enclosed space. These elements were
added in the final composite. Some shots required more than others
depending on how tight we ended up being. There were tank shots done
with particles and sprays and condensation on the lens.
There were many heart shots throughout the series, but no heart shot
was exactly the same, we had several different types of heart depending
on the age and conditions of the patients. Some had different heart
conditions and the heart rate always varied. This meant that re-use was
fairly limited and the pipeline had to normally go back to animation
each time before progressing down the line to compositing.
Matt Chandler came up with a look for the microscopic world. This was
one of the biggest challenges of the project. There was a big debate as
to whether we should go with the often used and typical “electron
microscope” look. This had been done before and the BBC was keen for us
to explore a different approach which wouldn’t separate the viewer from
the narrative quite so much. There isn’t such a thing as a “photoreal”
microscopic look as nobody knows what a world only ever seen through
electron microscopes really looks like texturally. We were able to use
some artistic licence along with strong guidance from scientists and
researchers on the project to try to come up with a look that would
keep everybody happy. Matt used techniques learnt from doing the
photoreal look as well as some secret ingredients to come up with
visceral looks for this world. Again shot hi-speed elements were
important in adding splats to lenses, particles and condensation.
The animation of some of these creatures that work deep inside our body
was another challenge. Jayson King used realflow ingeniously to come up
with some very fluid and wet animation movement for many of these.
What were some of the most challenging parts of the production?
Creating a realistic baby and coming up with a satisfactory microscopic
look were certainly big challenges, but perhaps the biggest was
completing 250-300 shots of pure CGI across 6 episodes with 6 different
directors in the time required when all the programs were delivering
within 6-8 weeks of each other. It was a case of almost doing a crash
course in medicine to understand the medicine behind all the shots and
get them complete in time and to the high standards we set for the
I needed to understand the different concepts behind the science and
get the animators and compositors to understand what was going on in
each of the shots. This was particularly true of the “trauma vision”
shots which needed to be accurate in describing what was going on at
any given moment in the films. At the same time they needed to look
interesting and once again not break from the narrative in too jarring
a way. Hence the match moving of the environment and people in the
scene and the x-ray look applied to the whole thing to take you in and
out of the shots smoothly.
What were the key techniques used to get the fleshy look right?
Good painted textures and a number of passes, particularly SSS combined
with creative compositing of many layers using many different highlight
passes such as specular, multiple reflection with HDR images and FG
were crucial. Wetness and fleshiness are probably two different
challenges. The fleshiness was fairly reliant on good sub surface
scattering passes (using the diffusion shader) and the wetness on the
other highlight passes along with extensive and tried and tested
Creating a realistic baby can be a huge and risky task, how did you guys approach this challenge?
Of course we had to face different challenges from the start; we had to
recreate the babies and environments that had never been shot,
maintaining visual but also scientific believability without
interrupting the narrative flow. Babies had been done before in the
womb, but the feeling was that they had never been that convincing. The
animatronic babies were stiff and lifeless and the CGi ones looked CGi!
So we started doing lots of research: taking many pictures of new born
babies; looking at photographs and footage; and importantly studied the
actuality footage of the new born babies from the series and then used
this as the basis for our digital content.
At the beginning of the project, in pre-production, myself and Marco
Iozzi (lead lighting and texturing TD), made a breakdown of the scripts
and storyboards, trying to narrow down all the shots involving babies.
Animatics were very important for the look of the babies: we really
needed to be sure about how close we would be to them because the
decisions about pipeline and workflow for these shots were related to
that. The problem was that the shots were many and we would need to see
the babies from different angles, sometimes with cameras revealing the
whole body, so basically we had to try to create something very
flexible and robust.
Modelling was fundamental, realism always starts from that. Jellyfish
modeller, Antonio Mossucca modelled the babies and created all the
blend shapes for animation. While refining the model, we started
testing lighting and shading. We took lots of pictures of new born
babies and used those as a starting point for the texturing work while
always thinking about how different they would appear just before being
born, lit in an environment like the womb. Initially we favoured making
the babies look more scratched and less perfect. However a number of
pregnant women on the show didn’t want to countenance anything less
than a “perfect” Johnson’s looking baby in their program! So we took
more and more imperfections out leaning more towards a cute look for
For the 20 week baby we used amazing Nilsson photography examples as a
guide and inspiration bringing that to our cg world. Collecting the
best references is always the best way to start.
We tried to be smart while designing the photography of the sequence,
because we wanted to end up with a moody and interesting look while
keeping problematic areas away from the viewer. We all know that in
this business the final result is always dependent on time constraints
and resources. Making a picture look realistic and nice is a completely
different story from creating a consistent reliable rendering workflow
for around 20-30 shots of babies in the TV series. The solution for
this in our opinion was the tight integration of 3D and 2D. We set up a
system that would eventually get the final look in Apple Shake,
providing all the needed passes in 3D to build the look and to afford
constant changes from the client.
Having the time to come up with a solid solution for this before
actually starting to work on shots was the key element. The soft
subsurface scattering effect for example, so crucial in the look of
these babies, was a mix of pure SSS secondary passes (using the
“diffusion shader”) baked textures and creative compositing.
I think the end result is really the marriage of subtle and believable
animation, good texture painting, and solid shader construction,
believable yet well designed lighting, and again creative compositing
of the 3D ingredients.
How was XSI used in this production? Which features were very useful and which areas should be improved?
XSI has been the right tool since the start, since the animatic stage and look dev.
We used XSI’s strong modelling and animation tools together with a 3D
paint tool for all the babies and organ elements. With so many shots to
animate the animation editor and the mixer made our job much easier.
Syflex provided us with the life-like secondary movement for fleshy
areas. From a shading and lighting point of view the render tree gave
us the right environment to experiment and then be productive, allowing
an artist friendly interface to work with, then giving us the right
tools to optimize the rendering (baking, layering etc..).
For the way we setup our pipeline to match our goals in the time given XSI was definitely the right choice.
On Fight for Life we ended up shooting live action particle elements to
integrate in our shots, so probably I would say that particles and
dynamics are areas that could be improved, above all to make more
things possible and immediate even for non-technical people joining the
studio. To get fluid movement and jellylike creatures, particularly in
the microscopic world we relied heavily on Real Flow and the expertise
of Jayson King in using this to come up with solutions in this area.
What do you think about the current state of the industry in London with lots of freelancers?
Of course it’s great to have London as the European centre of the VFX industry with all the talent it attracts.
There are two aspects to this. Firstly London (in particular Soho) has
become known as a centre of excellence in this field and this is
critical to all of us who run companies. As long as the government
continue supporting our industry and recognising the importance of the
tax breaks to the film industry here then it should continue. This
attracts the clients to make films and spend money on VFX here because
it’s convenient to do so. Secondly the talent will be attracted to
London because exciting projects are being created and the pay is good
because of the strong pound.
I do think that it does occasionally make it hard for us to keep track
of the talent and try to distinguish the very best people. Many people
now have impressive CVs because there is lots of work in London. This
doesn’t always match up to the best people though. It is relatively
easy to work on a big production with many others and come out with a
good credit at the end. It doesn’t always match up to what we’re
looking for as a small company where we can’t really afford to have
people who are only used to doing one task in a particular way and
sometimes rather slowly!
How easy is it to find talented artists?
Apart from what I have already said above, ie that London attracts many
artists because of the pay and projects that are now here, it is
actually pretty hard to find the right artists for the projects we have
and the software we use (XSI of course). There are two types of artist
we look for, lead artists who are great generalists and can bring
something new to the studio with a strong independent way of working
and the desire to get on in a studio where they want to take ownership
and responsibility. This tends to mean that they are the more
experienced artists who have a good technical knowledge base and can
solve a number of problems. XSI is still very much trying to catch up
in terms of education and user base. Since the halcyon days of
Softimage 9-10 years ago when it was the leading software in the
industry and many exciting developments were continually happening, XSI
has lost a lot of ground in attracting the big projects, and therefore
the best TDs and animators. This is a major problem for us. There are
very few really talented experienced TDs who understand lighting,
shading, pipelines and project setup that work in XSI. Of course most
importantly they need to be easy people to work with who can
communicate and have a clear logical way of working that is easy for
others coming in to the project to adapt to. Obviously this ideal
person doesn’t really exist, but the last point is an important one!
In terms of Juniors there are a number of artists coming out of
colleges. Now nearly every college in Europe teaches CGI. This means
it’s not so hard to find Juniors. However it’s difficult to know which
ones are good. It’s the old analogy of trying to get a drink of water
under a waterfall. There are many similar looking showreels being
churned out from the various colleges and getting time to meet all the
artists and giving them a trial is the only way to truly know who is
best suited for us. Unfortunately we just don’t have the time or
capacity to do this, so we do have to take gambles occasionally. We
have had mixed results but we do have a policy of taking interns trying
them out and if all goes well keeping them on more permanently.
What are you looking for in a showreel or resume when you are on the hunt for new talent?
Individual talent and ability that makes the work stand out from the
norm. We see too many character animation reels that just don’t cut it.
They often are over ambitious and tend to have too much work on them.
For Juniors out of college it’s important to have quality over
quantity. The first piece on the reel has to be excellent other wise
they’ve lost us. It’s important to get critical advice before sending a
Generally they must have excellent work on them. If the individual is
selling his services as a TD there has to be clear evidence and
knowledge of realistic photographic lighting and shading, all the
current techniques, whether image based lighting, SSS, or GI, along
with a general knowledge of compositing. It’s rare that we look for
specialist skills to the degree of just having an animation TD or
lighting TD, we prefer to have individuals who can cross boundaries and
have a complete problem and project solving overview. So a track record
of doing work hopefully in the TV industry as well as Film. We find
that people with a strong commercials background tend to be the best
artists. Anybody with a good commercials reel that uses XSI is gold
What is your advice to today’s student who wants to break into the industry?
I think the advice hasn’t really changed over the last 15 years.
Anybody thinking of starting in the industry should be 100% focused and
dedicated, must have a strong sense of confidence in their own ability
and hunger for knowledge. Having a good eye is crucial, although it’s
rare to find this in many people and it can’t be easily taught. Don’t
bother to get involved if you can’t think of anything else to do. It
has to be a passion. Spend time experimenting, exploring and doing your
own work. Unfortunately I think too many colleges drum this out of
people. Have confidence in your own ability, go out there and have the
desire to do something better than others are doing it. It is simply a
question of breaking down the task into manageable, easily understood
sections. The knowledge and tools are out there for anybody who has the
desire to find them, so anybody with that desire can achieve amazing
results. Having a good eye to know what’s good and what’s not is the
only aspect that can’t easily be taught, and it’s the most critical
skill, so if you have this along with dedication and desire you can
achieve amazing things.
Is there anything you would like to say to the rest of industry?
I think we badly need an industry body specifically for the CGI
industry in the UK, along the lines of the AOI for illustrators or RIBA
for architects. There isn’t really an industry body that sets out
certain important parameters to protect us from copyright, unfair
competition, exploitation etc etc. Any respected architect is a member
of RIBA, who set down a number of criteria to guide both clients and
architectural practices through the minefields of contracts, pitching
and copyright. The pitching process is often a mess in our industry,
there is no standard that is followed. Up to 9-10 companies may
occasionally be asked to pitch for a relatively small project. This
will often mean a less than 10% chance of getting the job, and will
more often than not involve doing a fair amount of unpaid work to land
the job. There should be no more than 3 firms invited to pitch and
there should be a nominal fee paid for any work required for the pitch.
Once we have done our work, 99% of the time it is handed over and we
see no more benefit from it. Often all rights are handed over for the
creative content. The work can be repeated and shown as many times as
the broadcaster/production company wishes with all the inherent
benefits to them, while the CGI company who may well have had a major
part in it’s success will get nothing more. Particularly in broadcast
where the initial fees are often tight this is an area that could
certainly be looked at. Illustrators and composers get anything from
15-30% of the original fee for a repeat of a work that has been used
for something other than its original intended use.
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