Chapter 10: Survival Kit

Introduction

So you think you are ready for the big stage ? You have read my book and lighting has no mystery for you. Let’s not forget about politics ! This chapter is mainly addressed to junior artists and students as I will describe my experience in the industry.

I really wrote this chapter thinking about all the things I would have liked someone to tell me before finishing my studies… I can only promise you : no cliché, no politically correct, no double talk. And to be as fair as possible when it comes to describe our beautiful industry.

Can you teach lighting ?

First I would like to get something out of the way. The Pixel Cinematography course (seen in Chapter 3) actually starts with an introduction by John Kars, quoting DP Steven Poster :

Oh, absolutely, no. No, you can’t teach lighting. You can’t teach someone how to light.

What ? I have worked with great artists who actually taught me how to light. I clearly remember Jose and Alfonso showing me how to light a character on Planet 51. When I went to Madrid, I knew how to create some lights and do a bit of layering. And that was it !

They showed me how to give shape to a character and create depth. I have used theirs techniques since then on many movies. I completely agree that the best way to learn is to practice. But having some mentors showing you their tricks and sharing their knowledge is very helpful as well.

There is no mystery or gift that would magically make you a great lighting artist. Not at all. Otherwise my book would be pointless. And that is actually the same thing with drawing. I had some great teachers who taught me how to draw.

Of course the learning curve is linked to your ability to observe and interpret the world. And that is very personal. But I do believe that you can teach and learn anything. Even good taste !

John Kars : All this course can really do is offer a few guidelines, provide some important things to remember, and hopefully point you in the right direction with a solid footing about where to start.

Fine by me !

Plenty of possibilities

I personally chose to specialize in lighting for animated feature films. But CG can lead to many other things ! You may join a structure of 500 people… Or create a collective with three friends !

There are so many possibilities : commercials, feature films, prints, freelance, VR, video games…that I found really difficult to choose a career at first. Do I want to be a generalist ? Work in commercials ? Should I learn other softwares ? How often should I apply to a company ?

You have so many options in CG that it can be overwhelming. It actually took me quite some time to find my path. I started as a generalist In Brazil, then came back to France as a Flame assistant. That was just not the right choice for me. I was having a really hard time with clients and short deadline’s pressure. I was kinda questioning my career.

Fortunately, my grandfather told me something very useful : First job is always a failure“. It was such a relief ! My career was not over (yes I had a tendency to overreact a bit) and I may pursue my career in CG after all. So, my first advice is : if you are disappointed about your first job in CG, don’t give up. It may improve later on.

A small industry

I would have never believed this when I was in school but feature animation is indeed a very small industry. We all know each other and word spreads out very quickly. You have no idea how many e-mails I receive from HR or supervisors asking me about a fellow lighter.

It is no coincidence that the hiring process of many studios includes three recommendations from former supervisors. Word of mouth is very important in our industry. So my first advice would be : don’t behave like a dick because it will backfire at you.

My first experience as a lighting artist was on “Planet 51” in Madrid, with a crew mostly Spanish. I firmly believed back then that these great artists, who barely spoke English, would stay in Madrid once we completed the project. I was so wrong.

Two years later, I worked again with lots of them on “Happy Feet 2” in beautiful Sydney. It is really important to behave like a professional because the people you are currently working with probably know your future colleagues.

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Trust me, it is a small industry.

1st job is a bitch

The 1st job is the hardest to get. It took me over a year to enter the film industry. And I actually had to expatriate myself ! The story about my first job is pretty funny.

I was at the 2007 Annecy Film Festival and I wanted to greet my teachers from my former school Supinfocom. When I arrived at the stand, Fernando Moro, animation supervisor on Planet 51 was asking about students who had particular interest in animation. I told him I was actually more interested by lighting. Which was fine because Ilionwas actually hiring lighting artists as well” he replied. Fernando did not speak English and I did not speak Spanish. We succeeded in communicating by speaking… Portuguese ! Two weeks later, I had an interview with Barbara Meyers and two months later I was landing in Madrid.

I had learned Portuguese in Brazil, my first job.

I know it is quite a coincidence but you never know how things are going to turn out. You make your own luck.

Requirements ?

Here is another example : on my way to the 30th anniversary of Supinfocom, I was in the train casually listening to students and junior artists talking about applying to some companies. One comment I overheard (they were actually pretty loud) was “I cannot apply there, they are asking for +2 years of experience. I wish I could.”

My advice would be : DO IT. When a company puts some requirements online, it is a best case scenario. If your profile does not exactly fit, they will not automatically discard your profile.

It actually happened to a colleague of mine who went to… Pixar ! They were looking for people with three years of experience with Renderman and he only had two ! But he got the job. So, give it a try and you might get lucky.

Fear of failure is our biggest enemy.
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I would apply even if I only have 3 or 4 years of experience…

Once you have found your first job in the industry, things will get easier. You will have more contacts, you will hear about companies, projects, where and when to apply. If you are bit social, you will grow a network over the years. And that makes a huge difference !

There is a common belief among junior artists that you should know or practice lots of softwares and render engines. That is so untrue. On the contrary ! I have been trained practically on every show I have worked on. Mostly because studios have their own proprietary tools.

Generally supervisors do not care so much about which software you used on your last show. At least in feature films. They mostly care about the quality of your pictures and your artistic and technical skills. Since most studios work in PBR with a path tracer, it is much easier to switch softwares than it used to be. Don’t worry about the software, focus on your artistic qualities.

How to choose a production

If you are lucky enough, you may face another issue. You may get several offers at the same time. And believe me, it can be a tough choice ! In 2007, I had to choose between going to London or Madrid.

I had been dreaming about London for a long time since it was such a famous VFX place. I didn’t know anything about Madrid nor did I speak Spanish. A very good friend of mine gave me this advice : “Don’t go to Ilion, they work with 3ds Max.I am glad I did not listen to his advice. Going to Ilion has been one of the best decisions I ever took : it was the beginning of my career in Animation.

Softwares should never be a criteria to choose a production in my opinion. A software is just a tool to make images. What does matter is the quality of the images. So you can train your eye and become a better artist. Of course if I could, I would only work with Guerilla Render. But it must not be my first and only criteria.

My personal criteria

Here is a non-exhaustive list of my own :

  • The project is my number one criteria. If the project does not have a minimum of artistic quality, I find it very difficult to invest myself.
  • Colleagues are also very important. Do you know someone who works at this place already ? How does he feel about the project ? Maybe he can give you an hint on how things are going.
  • Interview feedback really matters. How did you feel when talking to your possible future colleagues ? Did you get a good vibe from them ? How did they describe the company or the project ? If something seems off, listen to your guts.
  • Salary can also make a big difference. How expensive is the rent, the food or the transportation ? Does the company offer any relocation package ? You may never talk salary with your supervisors during the interview. This generally takes place later with HR.
  • Company status is key. Does the studio own its product or not ? What is its relationship with the client ? Did it have to bid against others VFX vendors ? Does he have control other artistic decisions ?

Regarding the company status, switching from Cinesite (VFX vendor) to On Animation (studio) made a huge difference for me. Some VFX companies, in order to win the bidding of a show, lower their budget too much. If a show would need 25 artists across all departments, they will have to deliver on time with maybe 12 artists, which means a lot of pain and sweat.

Interesting video on this topic.

My interviews

As a Sequence Supervisor, I am mostly looking for three things :

  • Quality has always been a very important factor of decision for me. I kinda need to fall in love with the project I am going to work with.
  • Responsibilities is something I am always looking for. I like to be in charge of a team or a department, especially training or managing.
  • To be busy. I need to be busy. In the past two companies have hired me to do nothing. I would like to avoid as much as I can this kind of situation.

Here is a very personal list of questions I ask during my interviews :

  • How big is my team ?
  • What would my tasks be ?
  • How many leads are there ?
  • What am I responsible for ?
  • How many people are above me ?
  • What quality are you aiming at ?
  • How many people are they in the department ?
  • Who does the compositing of the shots ?
  • How do you work on a sequence ?
  • Which softwares do you use ?
  • How long is the production ?
  • What is the budget of the movie ?
  • How long are your renders ?
  • How are dailies organized ?
  • Can I train my team? Make presentations and demos?
  • Do have you lighting meetings ?
  • Will in be in touch with R&D ?

In a department, you need both seniors and juniors. Do not hire on CV or demo reel, but on knowledge and attitude. Seniors will provide the experience and juniors the energy and motivation.

Word of mouth

I would never choose a company based on its reputation. Because “a big and famous name” is not enough. Best example that comes to my mind would be Animal Logic. I did two shows over there : Lego Batman and Ninjago.

Same crew, same softwares, same building… Two completely different experiences ! And the same happened on Happy Feet 2. My friend Jerome had a blast working in animation, while I was having a rough time in lighting.

Can a production budget be a criteria ? If you are working on a very low budget, like 10 millions of dollars for a feature film, you will struggle to reach some quality. But the other extreme is not ideal neither : if you have too much money on a show, people will not care about optimization nor efficiency and you may end up with 80 iterations per shot. I personally think the average of $70 million budget is comfortable. You have enough money to reach some quality but not too much, so people have to be smart on their way of working.

My tuppence.

Too many cooks

I learned this interesting expression from my lead on Ninjago. When you have too many people giving their opinion on a movie, it can feel like the kitchen is a bit crowded. Nightmare productions generally have the syndrome of vertical organization :

  • An artist shows his shot to his lead and gets some notes.
  • The lead shows the shot to his supervisor and may get different or contradictory notes.
  • After some iterations, the lighting sup will present the shot to the CG/VFX sups (there may be few of them) and will probably get more notes.
  • Eventually the shot will be shown to the director and get approved. Or completely changed. You never really know.

This kind of organization presents two main issues :

  1. You may get lots of notes, sometimes contradictory, if you cannot anticipate the director’s vision (if he has one).
  2. People get frustrated and do not feel valued which results in a lack of investment and motivation.

It is also very important to define precisely the roles. A lead lighting role at Illumination can be very different to a lead lighting role in an other company.

After the interview, Animal provides a list of very precise tasks and expectations for each role. No bad surprises in this case.

A logical solution

But there is a great solution to that ! For example, at Animal Logic, things were quite different. As as senior, you would work on your shot with a lot of autonomy and in dailies you would show directly to the VFX supervisor or Production Designer.

This process was applied on a department level and made our lives much easier. We would have much less steps in the chain of command. This is probably the reason why I felt so fulfilled on Lego Batman.

Can you imagine ? A senior artist talking directly to Grant during dailies ? No intermediary. Not only it was more efficient but it also motivated me a lot. I experienced a similar process at On Animation with Rémi Salmon. It is probably cheaper as well for the studio since the shots get approved more smoothly. Win-win.

Ben Snow : “In the business of looking at images, everyone is an expert and will offer their opinion.”

So true. People just love to comment, even if they have no idea.

Fulfill your contract

I know it can sound stupid. But while you are on a show, having possibly a difficult time, you may have sometimes to juggle with offers from other companies; which may look quite tempting. As one may say : “Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

But if you have signed a contract, I would highly recommend you to fulfill it. When you sign on a project, you are committed to a company and people expect you to respect this agreement.

It is in my opinion something not to take slightly. When having a rough time, I often think of this great quote from Churchill : Never never never never never give up“. There is a tendency in the industry to think that it is okay to leave a project before it is actually delivered.

That’s actually a big deal. If you are really not enjoying on a project, speak up. Solutions can be found, sometimes in an unexpected way.

Life is a question of priorities

We all have different priorities : it may be traveling, working on your own projects, having some stability, working on big movies… And these priorities are personal and you will take important decisions in your life based on them.

Right after finishing school Bastien Dubois went to Madagascar to direct his short film. It was a bold choice back then ! Two years later, he got an academy award nomination for it in 2011. Same thing with Alexandre Espigares who was working on Happy Feet 2 and had to leave to direct his short film in Luxembourg. He actually won the academy award in 2014 !

My personal choice was to travel, work on big movies and learn from the best artists. And there is a rule I have come up with to know if you are in the right place or if you should change company. I think that you are not wasting your time in a job if :

  • You learn lots of stuff. Learning is essential in our industry and if you actually learn useful knowledge at your job, stay there.
  • You earn a lot of money. Well money can be useful, right ? To buy a house or a car. So if you are saving some money and you are not bored to death, stay there.

Ideally you would have both at the same time but that is very rare. If you have neither of these things, maybe it is time for you to move on. The hard part is leaving a studio where things are going well. To take that risk.

The making-of effect

When I was a student, I kinda thought that animation studios were like a big family where anyone could give their opinion, propose stuff to improve the movie and go down the hallway on a scooter. Well friends, here is my biggest truth : professional life is NOT a DVD bonus.

  • NOT Everyone can give their opinion. Basically you just do what you are being told.
  • Technical problems are part of the job. You spend lots of time cleaning stuff.

I can count on the fingers of ONE hand gigs where I felt fulfilled as an artist. And I will repeat in bold and with emphasis because it is CRITICAL : technical issues are the norm in the industry, especially in lighting where we receive publishes from all departments. So you better get used to it since ALL companies face these problems sooner or later.

Our job as a lighting artist is not to create lights and make it pretty. Since we are the ones rendering the images of the movie, our responsibility is much bigger. Since we are at the end of the chain, we make sure for every other department that things render correctly.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of technical tasks you may have to perform as a lighting TD/artist :

  • Debug the shot : why is it crashing on the farm ?
  • Optimize render times : why is it so expensive ?
  • Update assets : are you rendering the latest version ?
  • Track issues : why is the grass missing ?
  • Improve the shot : can you move this object and tweak its shader ?

Unless you accept those as a daily normal task, you’ll be very unhappy. There are just too many videos and making-of out there trying to sell us this dream job where everyone works hand-in-hand.This non-sense is actually doing harm to our industry.

Production examples

The Star

In the following video, why as a producer, can’t you just say that we output 250 shots per week and that it was tough ? That thanks to people sweating on their desks seven days a week, we were able to deliver this movie. There is no shame in that.

Up

Same thing with the next example. I love Pixar but I highly doubt that things were done this way. In most productions, scripts are being written while we work on the movie. We had three different screenings of Lego Batman while we were lighting it. Storytelling is not a science, it is an art. It is completely normal to try, to fail, to try again, to throw everything in the trash and start again. That is part of the process.

Lego Batman

Craig Welsh‘s approach seems more honest to me. He actually called his article on Lego Batman : “Industrialized Cinematography” ! This is a very authentic approach and a perfect way to pay tribute to the lighting crew.

Apart from the incredible talent and commitment of everyone involved, this achievement was possible due to a production approach that emphasized industrialization. […] An industrialized Lighting pipeline meant that, in my Department at least, the response to story changes and shot additions at short notice was a laconic “yeah, we can do that” followed by some bids that translated my assumptions about efficiencies into Production-palatable numbers. Then my crew of awesomely talented, hard-working lighters and compers could crank out the shots, not quite without breaking a sweat, but with minimal overtime and weekend work. The bulk of the film was actually made in the last three months of production. At peak, the Lighting and Comp crew in the week of Nov 21 2016  final’d 183 shots, representing 9.71 mins of screen time.

Thanks Craig !

Patience is the key

Do NOT rush. If something looks wrong, let’s analyze and try to understand what is going on. These making-of from Pixar and Disney, they really harmed the industry.

There is no magic place where everything works perfectly. There are only different places with more or less money and people sweating over their computers.

Each production is a bet. You never know how things are going to look like. Even at a big famous studio like Animal Logic ! We did most of Lego Batman in three months ! The first Lego movie was saved by a lighting TD who developed Glimpse on his own time.

Companies rely on human beings, a big name is not the insurance of a quality production. The software does not give the quality. The artist does.

I would like to clarify something here : the average production time in lighting is around a year. The longest I have done was Planet 51 (around 21 months) and the shortest was The star (5 months or so).

The three months (mentioned above) of Lego Batman were actually three months of crunch time.

Overtime

Crunch time is part of every production. I can’t remember a single show where I did not work a Saturday or extra hours at night. It is completely normal in our industry. Even if you plan everything as best you can, there is always something unexpected along the way. Who knows ? It might be a happy accident that hopefully makes the movie better.

Craig Welsh was really clear about overtime policy : “You must fill your time sheet with the real hours you put in. Otherwise, we will undervalue the cost of the movie production and for our next bid, the client will therefore ask for a lower budget. It will start a vicious circle if you do that.”

It is not okay not to get paid for overtime. You should at least get paid on a normal rate for any extra hour you put in. Otherwise you are just killing the industry. You are burying your own grave by doing free overtime. Some producers may try to take advantage of you if you are a junior artist. So pay attention.

A student asked me once what I thought about the Rockstar controversy. I have done 90-hour weeks on Happy Feet 2 and The Star. And all I ask for is to get paid. Don’t ever do free overtime.

The OT controversy

I got a very interesting conversation about overtime with an artist from London. Main question was : is overtime compulsory in our industry ? I do think that overtime is part of our industry. Movies are an art form and even if you have a clear idea of your script, you never really know how things are going to work out (in public screenings for example).

Even if you plan things with lot of care, the creativity and the artistic changes you are going to face during production will cause overtime most of the time. Having said that, I also agree that studios take advantage of this when they should not.

Do you do less overtime with a $70 million budget since people are supposed to work smarter ? I would say on paper, yes. Production has less budget so supervisors are forced to find smart solutions. Best example would be Animal Logic I think. I do think their ratio budget/quality is pretty much unbeatable.

But it does not mean you will do less overtime. I did three movies over $200 million budget in my career (Happy feet 2, Avatar and Apes) and it was a similar pattern every time : unlimited OT and not much control. Funny thing, the worst OT I ever did were on HF2 and the Star with very different budgets ! So the connection between budget and OT is not necessary logical.

Time off in lieu

Sometimes companies will offer you TOIL (Time off in lieu) instead of getting paid overtime. What does this mean ?

Time off in lieu (also known unfortunately as TOIL) is where you agree to give an employee paid time off in lieu of extra hours they have worked (overtime) instead of extra pay.

Definition from this website.

I have very little experience with TOIL so please excuse my naivety. Here is what I can tell you : I did some overtime on Lego Batman which gave me the right to more holidays, right ? I actually never got the time to use these holidays during production. So I got a big check when my contract ended. That’s it.

In my very limited and personal experience TOIL was some money when I left, like some sort of delayed OT. Some people told me to be careful with TOIL since the company could go bankrupt at the end of production and therefore you would lose all your extra days/money… It never happened to me though.

The blame game

I recently discovered this expression and I found it quite interesting. Departments working hand-in-hand is very rare.The blame game” is actually quite common. I guess it is just a typical human behavior : something is not working, you get fed up and you blame others. In lighting we would typically blame the surfacing artists. And compositing artists usually blame lighters…

That is something you do not see in many making-of, right ? A very good solution to this is to make inter-departmental meetings. At Animal Logic, we had a one hour presentation every week about various topics : it could be matte-painting, color management or surfacing. I found it very useful to learn about other’s departments challenges as it makes your vision broader. As lighters we are not necessarily aware but Set Surfacing generally faces two kinds of issues :

  1. The set model is not final when they start to work on it. So every time the topology changes, they have to adapt their work.
  2. The layout is not ready neither. So cameras are not published and the artist does not know where to put detail.

I guess it is a virtuous circle : you learn about other’s department’s issues, you understand better the pipeline, therefore you are more capable of fixing problems and you deliver better shots ! Or you can sit on your chair whining about stuff. I know it requires an effort to actually stand up and go speak to an artist from another department. But it can be very rewarding !

This issue can be probably avoided in a company which has a horizontal organization rather than vertical. Small cross functional teams have a tendency to work better together apparently. You can check silo thinking and scrum framework if you want to know more on this topic.

There has to be one…

On each movie, there is always a guy who complains and sets the mood :

  • They do not know what they want.” I have only worked with a couple of art directors who actually had a vision. Most of directors have no idea of what they want.
  • We will never finish on time.” After delivering 250 shots per week on “The Star“, I do believe everything is possible.
  • It doesn’t work.” I cannot bear this sentence because it does not mean anything. Can you be more precise, please ?
  • I have never seen something like this.” Only the lack of experience would make an artist speak this way. Yes, shit happens on a movie.
  • If only we had Renderman.” I have heard this sentence for two years on “Planet 51” and when I finally got to work in London, artists were saying “If only we had Arnold“.

Disappointment

There is often a disappointment with juniors who enter the industry. You have to prepare for this if you do no want to sound bitter. Studios are not magical places where everything works perfectly.

My best personal example would be at Framestore, working on “Nanny MacPhee 2“. We were doing some pigs swimming under water and lighting TDs had to do some fur simulation. I was surprised by the archaic side of the CFX tools.

I asked my lead about “the Golden Compass“, for which they had won an academy award a year earlier, and contain some pretty realistic furry bears. “You must have some great tools, right ? You guys did the bears ! ” His answer stunned me : “Yeah, that was a totally different show. We do not share tools between gigs. Each producer is responsible for his own show.

There are two types of directors : Visionary and chooser. Most directors are choosers (80% of them according to most recent statistics) : they need to see many different versions (probably something like 15 iterations) so they can pick one. Otherwise they can’t tell you what they want.

Production realities

I had my first production shock when I was doing this internship at BUF working on this funny ad for some bananas. I was doing the prints in Photoshop and got the chance to go to the review.

When I heard all the comments from the client, I actually thought they were joking. I had to make an effort not to laugh. They were dead serious. That is probably the price to pay to do some quality work…

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This was back in 2005…

So it can definitely be frustrating when you first discover the industry :

  • When the art director of a big ad agency does not know what magenta is…
  • Or when a producer sees twice the same version of the commercial and claims firmly : “Second version is much better !“.

I love your big ego

But good news is that you can cope with it. I personally grew as an artist when I realized that “to be patient” was a BIG part of the job and who my biggest enemy was.

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Yes, Kurt Russell is your biggest enemy.

My ego. Joke aside, this post from the Animation Guild is a very interesting read about our industry and the expected behavior if you want to survive.

1) Don’t tell your supervisor “I told you so” after you turn out to be right … and he is wrong.
2) Pick the issues over which you want to go to the mat. (And remember : the less you go to the mat, the more effective you’ll be when you finally do.)
3) Be positive rather than negative. Be happy to help out when asked. Strive to be kind.
4) Know what the legal and contractual rules are. […]
6) As much as possible, stow your ego at home in the garage. Nobody much cares what your problems are. They are focused on theirs.
7) When in conflict with supervisors or studio brass and things look dire, […] seriously consider rolling onto your back with all four paws in the air and exposing your throat. […]

Lesson learned

I clearly remember the moment where I understood what was expected from a lighting artist. It was a conversation with my friend Nicolas on Planet 51. I was complaining about “the multiple iterations of a shot and why the director would not approve it already to make my life easier“.

His answer was pretty forward : “his job is not make your life easier, it is to make the best movie possible. Even if it means that it will be hard for you. This resonated like a wake-up call for me. “A director does not care about money, time or efficiency. That is the producer’s role. A director only cares about making the best movie, no matter the cost.Once in a while, when I am frustrated, I try to remember this conversation.

Generally, there are three different phases on a gig or when you start in a company :

  1. Everything is awesome ! People, pipeline, food, environment, movie, shots… You are living the dream !
  2. Everything sucks and nothing works ! Your colleagues annoy you, food is always the same, pipeline is failing, shots don’t get approved…
  3. I’ll do my best ! Things are not perfect but I’ll work to the best of my abilities with the tools and people I have.

I have personally experienced these three phases and I also know people who has. A good friend of mine working at a famous Californian studio in 2014 made this comment : “There is no talent at X, only a lot of money. Of course at the eightieth iteration, the shot will look good ! ” Three years later, after understanding how the studio and its politics worked : “This is probably the best studio on earth.

Company culture

Something worth mentioning is that every studio has its own culture, values and even obsessions. After testing a few companies, you probably get your own idea of how a lighting pipeline should work. But I would not recommend to apply the same model everywhere.

For example some big studios do not care about automatizations. They basically have enough manpower to overcome any task. So they will just keep working manually since they have been doing this for thirty years in a rather successful way.

But if we have a look at Animal and On Animation, they are quite the opposite : they try to automatize as many stuff as possible (probably everything that is not based on the artistic I would say).

Someone who would try to convince these big studios to automatize (to make the process less defective or save money) would probably fail or spend a lot of energy. Rather than trying to change a studio, it is way easier to embrace things the way they are.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of studios famous quotes :

  • Ilion : It is what it is. My lead used to tell me that on Planet 51. A lot. (“Es lo que hay“.)
  • Animal : Whatever works. Another famous quote that impressed me.
  • On : Brute Force. Let Guerilla do the heavy work for you.
  • IMG : No cheat. They just hate it.

I have received this great advice once : “When you look for a job you have to find like a family. Colleagues with whom you share similar values, interests and make you feel comfortable.”

I was lucky enough to find a “family” at Animal, On, Illumination, Ilion…

Have perspective

In the end, you have to tell yourself that every experience, good or bad, teaches you something about yourself or even about life. For example, I haven’t enjoyed a lot working in VFX. But I have learned a lot, sometimes in a painful way.

On Narnia 3, we were facing many technical issues and I kinda remember that I wanted to smash my keyboard on the wall. But my lead David Fish, who was more patient than me, kept telling me with the most perfect English accent : “It is a bit annoying.Wow.

And in the end, thanks to Framestore, I learned RenderMan and was able to go to Sydney. Same thing for Happy Feet 2 (HF2). It was probably the most difficult show I ever worked on. But there is a before and after HF2 in my career. Kinda in a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” way. After HF2, nothing seemed impossible to me.

And since I learned Houdini on this show, it got me a job at Axis in Scotland. So even if you are working on a shitty show, it is worth asking yourself : maybe if I get through this, better things are coming after that for me. You never know.

Shot example

I’ll now use a shot from Happy Feet 2 (Director : George Miller) as an example. Just to get an idea on how difficult things can be. The shot below looks like an easy shot : exterior, daylight… No lighting challenges here, right ?

Surprise, surprise !

Here is a sum up from my recollection (it took me around six months to do this shot) :

  • V003 : Crowds are present but they don’t move.
  • V012 : Crowds are animated but with no fur.
  • V029 : Crowds are animated, with fur but have lost their shaders.
  • V034 : Water is black.
  • V041 : Water is transparent but simulation is broken.
  • V050 : Let’s put the sun the other way around.
  • V058 : Eyes are too dark and faces look flat.
  • V065 : Let’s put back the sun the way it was.
  • V077 : Water simulation is fixed but water drops are occluding.
  • V086 : Approved.

Moving around

I had the chance and privilege to travel during eight years : Brazil, Spain, England, Australia, Scotland, France, Australia, New-Zealand and Canada.

Traveling when you are single is great and easy. I would just pack my suitcase (I like to travel light) and live in a fully furnished studio. You get to meet new people, discover a new culture and learn a new language. When you are in a couple or with family it can be more difficult obviously. So before taking the big leap, here is my advice :

  • Living in a foreign country is not easy. You’ll have to open a bank account, pay your taxes there, find a place to live. It is not a magical fairyland.
  • You can get homesick especially if you are living far away. The food, the weather and the people will be different, the social interaction as well. You have to prepare for this.
  • Gather as much info as you can. What is the cost of living : rent, food, transport, hobbies ? You should not only focus on the salary but on the expenses as well. What is the average salary in this city or company ?
  • What is health care like ? That’s a huge topic. To get sick in a foreign country is not fun at all. Ask the studio if they have any private medical care.
  • The company should help you to settle. if a foreign studio hires you, they should at least provide a plane ticket for you and your family and two weeks of hotel. That’s the minimum relocation package.
  • Take it easy. The beginning of the trip is generally quite stressful : you have to find a place to live, do all the administrative stuff and learn your new job at the same time. Your supervisor should be aware of your situation and act accordingly.

Moving tips

Here are some tips if you are moving with kids (based on colleagues’ experience) :

  • What will your partner do ? I have heard so many stories of couple breaking up while they were abroad. It is a real test. So make sure you are both on the same page.
  • It is not a stupid idea especially if you have kids to travel alone first. It will give you time to settle, find your marks and then you can bring the rest of the family.
  • Always leave the door open to come back. If things are not working like you expected, it is okay to go home. This would not be a failure.

The biggest cultural shock I ever experienced was when I moved from Madrid to London. My Spanish colleagues were basically my friends, there is no clear separation between work and private life. Which can be great or not. Ilion was overall a very nice place where people would have lunch together. London on the other hand was very professional, much quieter and a bit cold. I would often eat at my desk. Except at the pub where my colleagues would unexpectedly become different people. I honestly cannot say one model is better than the other.

They are just different and you should get the best of it.

Find your place

I got this great piece of advice on my first gig, Planet 51. I remember that as a mid lighting artist, I wanted to do lots of shots. That was my goal. To be fast and efficient and render as many shots as possible.

Another mid lighter on the show chose a completely different approach. He was slower than me but he was getting these great money shots. He was taking his time to work on these amazing lighting setups.

A senior friend of mine then gave me this advice :

Watch out. Do you want to be categorized as the quantity guy ? If you output many shots quickly, people will get used to it and put a label on you. Ideally which label would you like to have ?

That’s why I don’t code. I have worked for 15 years without doing a single line of mel or python because I don’t want to have a programming label on me. On every show I have worked on, there were so great developers who would take care of it anyway.

But it does not mean that you should not look into regular expressions or scripts. On Lego Batman, our lighting workflow would be based on these amazing scripts called RSS. And this is the closest I ever went to scripting.

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The Render Submission Script (RSS) from Animal. I do believe that text can be a lifesaver.

We had a RSS template for the whole movie to start from a proper base. And a prefill command to help us typing the correct nomenclature.

I have had a quantity label on many shows and I was honestly fine with it. Until I got a bit tired of outputting many shots and eventually moved to a lead position.

Advice to students and junior artists

Attitude

As a supervisor, I don’t want to micro-manage nor open your scenes. You are the owner of your shot and are responsible for it. You and only you can make it look good. I hate when artists are just waiting and whining about their shots : “it doesn’t look good, it is not working.What the heck “it is not working” means ?

Something they probably don’t tell you in school : production is tough and lighting can be a pain in the arse.

  • Why didn’t they approve my shot ? I am working on version 086 !
  • Why do I have to re-render for the 7th time ?
  • This character was supposed to be fixed in the previous version ! Why is it still broken ?

Sequences get cut, tools don’t work, artistic direction changes several times : that’s part of the job. End of production is always the most difficult moment : people are tired, they make more mistakes and there is somehow less stuff to do.

As a lead, I am not necessarily looking for experienced people : I have worked with great junior artists. I am looking for attitude and a proactive behavior. It is okay to fail. We all have flaws and we all make mistakes.

But what makes a huge difference in my opinion is your attitude. In case of an error :

  • Don’t panic.
  • No need to bury your head in the sand.
  • Don’t blame other departments.
  • Tell your lead and other teammates.
  • Look for a solution.

If you see a mistake or an issue, share it with the team. Do not keep it to yourself. We probably want to fix errors for the entire sequence, not only on your shot. There is always a reward in doing things properly. Believe me. I know this since I make mistakes every day.

Check, double-check, report an issue

Double-check your information before sharing with anyone. Too often, I see artists sending e-mails before checking properly their scene. That is the most common mistake among artists. It also compulsory to check what you publish. It will be a great help for everybody.

  • Junior artist : “Hey, my character’s fur is not rendering. Can you fix it ?
  • Lead : “Hum, I don’t know. Have you tried deleting and re-importing it ?
  • Junior artist : “No.

First thing to do if an asset is not rendering or broken, import it from scratch in a new scene to test it. Is it still causing an issue ? Have you actually tried a couple of things before asking your lead ? Use dichotomy when you have an issue until your narrow it down :

  • Does my render still crash if I remove displacement ?
  • What if I remove the characters ?
  • Is there a log to check ? Any error message ?
  • Can you do a very simple scene for TDs to have a look (by turning some lights off or applying a mid gray shader) ?
  • Make it obvious to others. I always do a print screen of the issue and circle it in red. Trust me, this is a huge time saver.

Reach out to the senior artists. Graduate or junior can learn a lot if they are not afraid to ask. Some companies have mentor ship program where they allocate a senior artist to the junior/graduate.

And that’s a great thing !

If after all these tests, the issue is still not fixed. Maybe you could do a ticket where you explain as best as you can your issue. And be fucking polite. I have seen the following email from a real experience :

  • Junior artist : “My scene is broken. Fix it.
  • TD : “Please ?

Start you email with Hello and finish it with Thanks. And cc’ your lead when you report an issue. Simple as that. These small recommendations for communication will be of great help in crunch time.

Advice to supervisors and leads

Purpose

In a perfect world a supervisor should share his vision and explain his philosophy to his crew. I have been for a long time wrong about the supervisor’s role. I have thought for many years that a supervisor should the best lighter on the team. That is so untrue. A supervisor is the one who best manages talent. Which is a very different thing.

So each lighter can reach his best potential without any limit to his potential. A supervisor’s role is to establish a trust relationship with his team and set a positive dynamic. He should be able to talk to artists, reassure them, listen to their issues and fix them on a department level.

We must not underestimate all this human and psychological aspect of a production. It’s the best way to cut rumors, complaints and concerns. The goal is to find the right balance so that everyone can flourish in a defined framework.

For example each artist could make a presentation on a subject close to his heart : painting, DOF, cinematography… So that everyone feels involved in the process and in order to generate emulation between the artists. It would be beneficial for everyone.

What I would like to achieve as a supervisor ? If I am away, the team should work the same. You guys know what to do when I am not around. Basically my purpose is to be transparent.

  • A supervisor works on a movie.
  • A lead works on a sequence level.
  • An artist works on shots.

I always say : “A good supervisor shows how it works. A bad supervisor says how it works.”

Training

This should be a very important aspect of production but unfortunately not many companies give it sufficient attention. Training is not a ‘bonus’, it should be the base.

At Animal, we had one hour of meeting and training per week. And it was compulsory for anyone from the lighting department.

Another great idea from Craig.
  • Training scene for new starters with help from the lead. It is very important that they try out the whole pipeline : build, publish, render a shot. All of this should happened in a separated branch of pipeline to not affect production.
  • Homogenization of lighting techniques : the whole idea behind this training is to make people work in a more similar way. If people shares a certain workflow, it will give us more predictable results and it is easier to debug too.
  • Inter department training : surfacing to lighting, DMP to lighting, art department to lighting… We have to work very closely together to make the best movie possible.
  • Training from people outside of the studio : director of photography, director, screenwriter… At Blue Sky, they had a master class by an awesome DP (I think it was Dan Lemmon’s brother) about filming penguins in Antarctica and which kind of lenses they used. Inspiring !
  • Lighting Wiki is also a very important in this process. It has to be updated frequently by leads and supervisors. Otherwise, it is pointless. We used this one at Cinesite : Confluence. You can also find some wikis for free like WordPress.

Too much often, unfortunately, companies see training as a loss of money since we are not producing anything. But I am 100% convinced that on the long-term you make better movies and cheaper too.

Life in the department

It is also quite crucial to keep the spirits high during production. A movie production can be tough and frustrating. It is vital that people can express these feelings freely. Here is a list of ideas on how to manage those :

  • Screening of movie on your first day of work and an invitation for lunch. Screening every 6 months to get the artists up-to-date with the movie.
  • One hour meeting per week for the department : this meeting is the place where artists can express their concerns or questions. It must be a secure place where people can speak freely. It is also a place where the supervisor gives updates on the project, where a TD can do a demo of a new tool, screening of a short film or a movie, lighting and painting study… 
  • Reviews once a day before lunch with the lighting supervisor. Artists work during the afternoon on their notes and asks their leads for help.
  • Separated dailies : you don’t want to mix the reviews and improvise in front of your team.  Morning dailies are for the lighting crew only. Once a week, the lighting supervisor meets with the director to show the shots and catch up with him on the sequences. If the director criticizes shots in front of everybody, it just diminishes the lighting sup’s aura.
  • Shot of the month with little prizes for the lighters. It can be voted by the whole department for the most astonishing shot. The winner can explain how he worked on his shot and share with his colleagues his techniques.
  • Once a month : organize a screening of all APP LIGHTING shots with beers offered by production.
  • Once a month : Show your stuff ! Screening of assets and shots from different departments with a presentation and an update about the project… And beers !

Team building

  • Party celebration for 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% of the movie. So people feel part of the process and celebrate their hard work.
  • Cine club, drawing class to watch movies and train your artists.
  • T-Shirts at the end of production.
  • Training camp : Put everyone in the projection room, take a few shots (good and bad) and have a proper demo on the video projector.
  • Forget my shot mini-bottles when shots are Out Of Picture (OOP).
  • Work outing once in a while (bowling, paintball…) also help for team building.
  • Breakfast with the director every 3 months. Allows artists and the director to chat around a warm coffee about the movie.
  • Get them involved : it is also crucial that motivation stays high during production. Everyone must feel like working at his best potential. Smaller teams give more cohesion.
  • Team, team, team : If teams are stable, it gives more cohesion to the group. Depending on inventory, you can add 1 or 2 persons. Small teams give better results.
  • Chat rooms : The best way I have seen to keep everyone informed. A chat with the whole department where you can share informations like “Latest toolchain is broken. Don’t use it“. Because you don’t want to receive 200 emails per day, chat is very handy.

Team management

I am no expert in management as I have learned it the hard way. But here are a few tips based on my personal experience. I write these recommendations for myself as well to keep me on track. Because a friendly reminder never hurts :

  • Be cool. Be confident. Don’t try to please people.
  • Let them work as they want. A team is about trust. Don’t be a control freak.
  • Don’t take the work from your lighters when they are away for lunch or at night.
  • Make their life simpler. Don’t over complicate things and share the load.
  • Acknowledge the elephant in the room. If things go wrong, speak up !

Think about the leads you had as an artist. Think about what you liked or disliked about them. As a lead, you now have the official power to organize a meeting.

You can book a room with a projector to show references, make a presentation about lighting or movies. That’s awesome ! Don’t copy the leads you had. Be the lead you always dreamed to have.

Here are my personal recommendations :

  • SPEAK. Don’t keep things inside as you will eventually explode at some point.
  • Your artists should feel responsible for their shots and involved in the process.
  • Workload should be shared fairly among the team.
  • Ask them : Do you need help ? Can you fix it ? Are you okay with this ? Don’t ever say, especially in the heat of the moment : I told you not to do so.

Artist management

Most of the time lighting artists want two things :

  • Interesting shots.
  • To work at ease (aka to be left in peace).

The most complicated part about being a lead is “shot assignation”. Because people compare their shots, speak about them and eventually they can be jealous. Sometimes you have a junior who is more efficient than a senior. So who are you going to give the good shots to ? Anyway most important is to :

  • Trust them.
  • Check with them from time to time.
  • Let them manage their shit.

An important point is to anticipate as much as you can the sequences. So you are always a step ahead of the team, like a mountain guide. A team is about trust, it is like building a living organism.

Finally people will remember the good moments aside of work. Have lunch with them, a drink or go to the movies. For example, if you have a whiskey bottle on your desk with some glasses. When morale is low, have a shot with them and let’s go back to it ! It seems stupid but people will remember this kind of details. It helps to set a good atmosphere.

Conclusion

Well this was my list of advice from an old fool. I hope I did not scare you too much with all my stories. But I really think that we should share our experience rather than keeping it from students. Finally here is a great proverb to help you get prepared : Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

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