3D animator and maker Kim Lee discusses how he combines digital and physical production methods for maximum flexibility and creativity.
- My name is Kim Lee, I do a myriad of things, most recently I'm doing 3D animation, and I do that at a company called FuseFX, in New York. I also do fabrication, specialty fabrication for custom props and sets. What am I working on at the moment? I'm working on a bunch of TV shows, visual effects for a bunch of big TV shows that are out, stuff like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Blacklist, things of that nature, and a couple new ones coming out this fall.
Also working on the side, working on a fabrication project with my brother who owns a side company with me, creating a very strange mechanism related to food is all I can say. Well back when I was learning it, there were no schools teaching this stuff. There were very few published instructional material available for it, and I remember running around and having to try to find this CAD book, about AutoCAD, that happened to have a chapter about 3D Studio.
I started on 3d Studio DOS, way back in the day, so it was really not a lot of information it was all self-taught for the most part. Probably around the time when I started getting established that's when all the books started coming out, so I was like damn, just missed it. Most of my material for learning didn't come from the web, it came from sitting with people who were also doing it, which led me to start the usergroup in New York for 3D Studio, it started as the 3D Studio Usergroup, and then obviously when 3ds Max came out, we changed it over to a Max Usergroup, but the exact reason for not being able to find material to learn from, and to find, we basically had to find fellow birds of a feather, right? Kindred souls who were interested in the same thing, so I had reached out at the time, I guess it was CompuServe or AOL, I mean this was, wow, I'm really dating myself.
We reached out there and I found two other guys in the New York area who were working with the same program, and I'm like oh this is amazing, I found other people, and we were talking, I was like there's got to be a usergroup to go find out information from. And there wasn't, we looked and we looked, and we couldn't find anything, and we had gotten together and we said well, what's to stop us from starting one, you know? So we just started a usergroup just to get community together to try to find people to learn from.
That led to meeting a lot of people, getting my first job, meeting people from Autodesk, like Frank DeLise, and that whole crew who I became friends with, and learned so much hanging out with them. We all would hang out together, and have Super Bowl parties at Frank's house, and never watch the football game, but stop to watch the commercials to see the CG in it, but we would sit there and be making stuff.
It was kind of a, when I was learning, the best thing was it was a rivalry because, at the time, Frank had been the main demo guy at Autodesk, or I guess it was Kinetics at the time, when we were learning this stuff. And he would show, hey, look at this cool thing, and I can make a submarine with bubbles and whatever, all that, and we would watch, and be like, oh, that?s cool, yeah. Then you?d go home and like, well I know he clicked on something here, you know, you just kind of learn from watching, from each other, and a little bit of friendly rivalry, kind of like, I can make a better one than that.
Let me do it, you know, and just, we kind of pushed each other. So, a lot of my learning, initially, was self-taught, like reading the manuals, trying stuff, just making things, making mistakes. Reading the forums on CompuServe at the time, before there were all these websites and stuff. And then, learning from peers, and hanging out, and just because we loved what we were doing, and we were really interested in it, we would sit down and like, oh yeah, I got a way to do this, and we would check it out and go improve on it.
So, a lot of that. Very little from books. Nothing from like videos on the web, there was no video on the web at the time, it was just people typing oh yeah, click this, you know? I started in the music industry, I got sick of the music industry, left the music industry. Had been always interested in building PCs, at the time, started building PCs. Discovered 3D Studio, I really was building the PCs for games, I wanted to play cooler games, and no one was releasing games on the Ataris anymore.
So I went to PC and in one PC magazine there was an ad for this program, and I was like, oh, I'm going to find out about it, found out about it, got an educational copy of it, learned it, came to SIGGRAPH in '95, here in LA, and the rest is history. I just met people and had my demo reel, and that's how I got in here. I have some design background from my father, because I worked with him, he's an advertising art director, so I learned a lot of print, layout, typography, things like that, got sick of doing stills for him, and realized you shouldn't work with family, (laughs) so left him and started into this and never looked back.
How did I do that? So I had been very, primarily, doing very strong on the 3D digital side for a long time. I had always been interested in carpentry, I had been doing it on the side for fun, just as a hobby, building stuff for myself. My brother, who I own a company called Worlds Away Productions with, in New York, he's a production designer, and once in a while he would say, hey can you give me a hand, I don't have a carpenter for this, can you just help me build this really simple stuff, can you help me build some stuff? So he would bring me on to a project if I had some time that I was in between projects, and I would help him out building stuff, fabricating, doing carpentry.
A few years later I got a little slow on the digital side, self-imposed kind of lull, in business, I just wasn't pursuing it a lot, I wasn't going after work. So as that happened I had gotten very interested in electronics. It was one of those things where it's like, you know, if I don't learn it now, I'm never going to sit down and learn this stuff. So I decided I'm going to teach myself electronics, got into the Arduino, went that whole route, learned it, played around, made some stuff, that led to an interest in other things mechanical/electronic.
I started, you know, this is right about the very beginning of the 3D printer craze, when everybody was doing these do-it-yourself kits, and I had also discovered this thing called the CNC machine. And seeing these people building their own CNC machines. So, the combination of those things led me to get into like mad scientist mode, and I basically spent all of my time in my garage trying to build 3D printers. I had bought some books on it, and I built a 3D printer, and I built a small CNC machine which was kind of crappy, yeah, I mean it worked, but it was a little, what we say in New York, it was a little foogazy, and it really didn't do the greatest job, but it worked, and all the principles worked, and I saw how it worked together, and I figured out the electronics, so I was like, alright, I'm going to build a bigger one, and that kind of led me to build this big five foot by nine foot steel aluminum CNC machine, and this was a big deal.
I mean it was just me being crazy, but it turned into a very lucrative and useful tool because I had shown that to my brother who had been seeing this the whole time like we could make, fabricate custom scenery with this stuff, custom props, we don't have to go out to have this stuff cut, we can do it ourselves. So that led to me doing a lot of stuff for him cutting big custom custom props for like Showtime, promos, and other things, other signages for commercials, stuff like that.
That led to me being noticed by a buddy of ours who was union carpenter, and he happened to be a friend of ours named Danny Rivera, in New York, who became the construction coordinator, the top construction guy for a new show on Cinemax that was coming out called The Knick, about a hospital in the 1900's in New York, and they basically hired me on to be the first in-union CNC operator, usually they send that work out.
So next thing you know I find myself with three pallets of lumber delivered, and like alright we're building a big 50-foot operating theater for this TV show that Soderbergh's directing. I'm like, okay, (laughs), cool, so did that for a few months, helped build the sets there. Cut a lot of fake brick for the sets, and did that, it was great, and the sets were amazing, and I was just, it was really cool to be part of something that you could touch.
Cause for so many years, if there was no electricity, I couldn't show you anything I did. (laughs) And you could never touch it, so it was kind of nice. And then after that, we did a lot of those, and I did some of that, and then we did a lot of specialty projects where it was a lot of kind of mechanical, or there was a lot of planning involved that needed to be done in the computer, so it kind of, there was this natural progression to me working more with my brother.
Not just I do the CG, and he does the practical, but more kind of working together, on the same projects, because originally when we had started the company, it wound up like he would do physical projects and live action shoots, and I would do CG projects. And that was, there was really a big divide, it was like two companies under one roof. And then we started working together and that really led to like a whole slew of interesting projects for like Google, and American Express, and Panasonic, things like that where we were actually combining, at the beginning, all the digital, to do all the planning, show all the clients, you know previs, things like that, renderings, and then into planning mechanical, or just anything complex that had to be done that if we didn't do that first we would be wasting a lot of fabrication time making mistakes.
We did that quite a bit, and it was great, and then eventually I got this offer to work with Fuse and my back had started hurting a bit from, you know, all those hours of standing on concrete, (laughs) I was trained as a digital artist, and I'm sweating in a warehouse, so, it's like yeah, I'll take a break from it for right now, I won't make this my primary, let me go back to digital for a while, and I still do CNC cutting and making things, so I'm pretty much in the maker movement, I should have said that as my answer before.
When you asked like so what do you do? I make things.