Sean Amlaner, Stereo Layout Artist for Wreck-It Ralph (now on DVD and BluRay) gave me a lot of great info about his role on the film and his thoughts about the current situation of the VFX industry. This is what he had to say:
G: On Wreck-It Ralph, your title is “Stereo Layout Artist,” could you explain what that title entails in your own words?
Sean: A Stereo Layout Artist performs stereo layout duties. In case anyone is unfamiliar with 3D stereo films, the literal process of “stereo” is the creation of a pair of side-by-side images that are used to generate the illusion of actual “depth” in an image by slightly offsetting one camera from another hero camera. In a nutshell, this means in a digital world that the artist sets up the computer-generated stereo camera pair, which mimics the same camera settings and location in 3D space as the mono hero camera. The main difference between the mono camera and stereo camera pairs is that, like mentioned above, the stereo camera pair is horizontally offset from each other to create a separate image for each eye. This allows us to create the illusion of stereo depth through various means of delivery to the viewer, for example, by simply interlacing the image for a 3D monitor or through stereo image delivery to high-end 3D stereo projectors used in theaters. As well as stereo camera creation, a stereo artist will also set how much stereo depth is in each particular shot as well as do final stereo-related compositing (also known as stereo finishing) work to ensure that no stereo artifacts are present within the final-rendered 3D stereo images.
For me personally, my job requirements as a Stereo Layout Artist also included a few other secondary duties, which included assisting in training additional artists for low-level image finishing, task-centric training demonstrations, Nuke tool development (utilized within both stereo and lighting pipelines), and Wiki-style training documentation.
G: What type of programs do you use for Stereo Compositing? Are they standard compositing programs such as After Effects or Nuke, or is it something entirely different?
Sean: Well, probably the most commonly industry-accepted node-based compositing package is Nuke, but there are others out there that can do some pretty awesome stuff. Fusion is another comp package along with several pretty cool proprietary comp packages that have been developed by various individual VFX houses. An example of this would be the Rhythm & Hues compositing package known as ICY (not publicly available outside their studio). After Effects can do some types of compositing, but it was originally designed as a motion graphics software package and is really good at that, but the majority of post-production VFX houses lean towards node-based compositing packages (such as Nuke) as their versatility and high-end control is significantly greater. After Effects versus node-based comp packages is a discussion some people will vigorously debate, but in my opinion, whatever tool is right for the current job is the one that you should use.
G: 3D movie experiences seem to be holding steady over the last half a decade or so. Do you see this 3D movie experience staying around indefinitely, fading away entirely, or evolving into something different (virtual reality, etc.)?
Sean: I see stereo as something that is here to stay. As you said, stereo films have been around for quite some time and if you look at the cyclical wave of how stereo films have come and go over the years, it hasn’t ever actually “disappeared”. When looking at compositing or effects-related job descriptions, you will see that more and more of them list stereo experience as a requirement. Major film companies like 3D because it does generate an additional amount of revenue that a 2D-only film otherwise might miss out on. Whether the future is in 3D stereo imagery or something straight out of the Star Trek ‘holodeck,’ I have no doubt that 2D films won’t be the only thing offered in the theatre from now on.
G: What drove you to post production, and more importantly, what made you decide to become a compositor?
Sean: Oh my, well, it was a bit of a convoluted path to be quite honest. When I was in grade school and through high school, I did a lot of web and graphic design. While in high school, I was recruited by the dean of my college art school. He showed me this awesome little animated short that they had made of two Kung-Fu strawberries fighting it out in a dojo and I was like “you can do that?!” Well, needless to say, I was hooked from then on. I started out training as a 3D Animator in college but a couple years into that, I realized I enjoyed fluid and particle sim effects work better. I focused on that for a couple of years and graduated, then went on to grad school which then ultimately led to my finding a unending passion for digital compositing.
G: Editor is such an ‘umbrella’ term in my opinion. For myself in particular, I find it very difficult to find a specific niche — “Do I want to be a compositor, or how about matte painter, or animator, or lighting artist … maybe previs …” — The list goes on and I’m wondering if you have any tips on how someone could better hone their focus and discover the job that is right for them?
Sean: Well, just to clarify, but the classification for an editor is actually not much to do with our VFX side of things. An editor is actually the person who does the literal cutting together of shots in a film/tv/music video and then the VFX house typically gets the edited imagery as they’re cutting the film. For those of us on the visual effects side of things, most of us are classified in the “artist” category, not an editor. Then within the artist category, it’s broken down for: animator, lighter, compositor, technical director, etc.
That being said, it can be a difficult thing to decide. I mean, there are so many different facets of job options within the visual effects world to choose from. It would probably be best stated that one should pick an area of visual effects based upon where their strengths and interests are. Let me give some examples. If you are really good at programming and enjoy doing that, you could be a TD (technical director) who would create tools, pipeline structures, software engineering, etc for a studio. But if you are really good at painting, then you would probably be quite suited to be a matte painter. But if you enjoy drawing characters and designing them from scratch, then you might be a character designer or modeller. Maybe you enjoyed creating those little animated flip books when you were a little kid, shoot, maybe you enjoy that as an adult or you desire to act out different actions through a character, so you might then become a character animator. Or, if you are like me and enjoy some technical challenges as well as cheating reality through modifying and blending together different images, then you might want to become a compositor. These are just some of the many different jobs an artist can pursue within the visual effects world. It just depends on what the individual enjoys and is willing to really focus their skills on.
G: In general, do studios look for a “renaissance man” who can do various editing tasks or do they prefer someone with one particular skill?
Sean: In many ways, this question actually depends on the type of studio someone is working at. Sometimes, if it is a smaller VFX house, the employer is going to be looking to hire an individual who is good at many things (a generalist). One of the main reasons for this is because it is too expensive to hire one person to do one thing for every single aspect of a boutique-style visual effects pipeline. But then the opposite is true of larger post-production VFX houses. These types of studios are typically handling a very large bulk of visual effects shots where they will be looking to typically hire someone who is an expert in one specific aspect of visual effects, such as compositing, lighting, or animating. All this being said, it can definitely vary from studio-to-studio. It just really depends on what each VFX house is looking to accomplish with the resources that they are given.
G: For people hoping to enter the VFX world, do you feel with recent events (R&H declaring bankruptcy, DreamWorks layoffs, etc) that this is a poor time to attempt to get in the industry? Is this an optimal time to try and get a job? Is Los Angeles still the best place to search for work or are there other areas with rising demand you can recommend?
Sean: This is a bit of a tricky question. I don’t think that any time is a bad time to get into the VFX world. It is more about just making the decision and going for it. That being said, these current events within the visual effects industry, such as what you mentioned, are rather painful and saddening. A lot of really talented people have given so much to help establish places like Rhythm & Hues and sadly, the post-production visual effects industry is being affected by certain negative factors that are hopefully going to be addressed in the coming months and years. This being said, with the globalization of the visual effects industry, opportunities around the world tend to be quite plentiful. To someone who is starting out their career, there are several major hubs for our industry. Los Angeles, Vancouver, London, New Zealand, among other places do offer some great opportunities. Especially if you are willing to travel, then I say go for it!
G: How did you get your big break in the VFX industry when you started out?
Sean: Well, I worked on several VFX-related projects while in college. The summer before I went to grad school, I actually had an opportunity to work on a really fun independent film which suddenly opened several doors for me. Then, while in grad school, I was privileged to work remotely as a freelance VFX artist for several studios located both here in LA as well as up in New York. These opportunities helped to cascade into others and ultimately I was hired by Rhythm & Hues through their apprenticeship program and they moved me out here to Los Angeles, where I’ve lived and worked at a number of pretty awesome studios since then!
G: With Wreck-It Ralph finished and coming out on Blu Ray in a couple of weeks, what projects are you working on now?
Sean: Unfortunately, the projects I am currently on can’t be disclosed because the films haven’t been released yet.
G: Do you have any final tips for someone who is trying to get established in the VFX industry that can help them stand out among the sea of other applicants?
Sean: Make sure you have your best work on your demo reel. And don’t make it too long. Do the best that you can and never, ever give up! Focus on quality and always be willing to work hard with others. Stay humble and be kind to those around you. This is a very small industry and you never know who and when you will bump into in the future. Above all, love what you do!!