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Interview with Phil Dobree

The 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 smaller company.
September, 12th, 2007by Raffael Dickreuter

Phil Dobree, Director at Jellyfish Pictures.


How did you get started in the cg industry and why?
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 something special.

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 absolutely convincing.
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 series.
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 compositing.

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 them.
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 showreel out.
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 dust!

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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