Join Rob Garrott for an in-depth discussion in this video Clear Menser: Visual effects artist, part of Artists and Their Work: Conversations about Mograph VFX and Digital Art.
[Clear Menser]: I grew up in California, in the Silicon Valley, so we got Mac, Apple II's, in second grade. - [Rob] Wow. - [Clear] And we were playing with those all day, even during recess, just like fun little turtle things, but it wasn't until high school that I sat down with QBasic on DOS, and, like, started writing my own little screen-savers and what-not. I actually wanted to be an illustrator. - [Rob] Oh, wow. - [Clear] So I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design. It wasn't until I got into the computers that it really hooked me. I found how sexy it was that you could just make up this world and the computer would do not all of the work for you, but it was a little less limited. The brushstrokes were more in the code as opposed to on the canvas itself. - As you grew up ... Actually I should ask what year that was when you first ... When you went to Savannah and -- - [Clear] I started at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1994. - Okay. - They had a traditional animation focus, like the computers were there, but it was only as an interesting aside, like look at this new, look at this new technology that's coming up. - [Rob] Right. - But it really hooked me, and I started doing some animations. I remember one of my first animations was just a bunch of spheres moved out, and some cylinders for legs, and I kind of made like a little pig, and rotated its legs around, but it's little steps like that, I think, that get people hooked. - [Rob] Absolutely. At the time were there, you know, in 1994, you know, desktop computers its been around, you know, for a good, you know, five or six years at that point, you know, in a really usable form. Did you find that the students around you were ... What's the word I'm looking for? Were acceptant of that technology or were they resistant? - There was a lot of excitement for computer technology, even that early in '96 and '97 when I actually got to sit down with the machines. - [Rob] Right-right. - Like I remember waiting outside of the computer building at 6:00 a.m. and sitting there all day at the machine working until they kicked us out at like 8:00. People were fighting over the first Kodak digital camera that actually took 3-1/2 inch floppies as its medium. Is it this box, no it's that box. I'm trying to make a sink here to eat up all the fluids. Select object, yes, and then we go in there. Oh, I have to select it manually. Ah-ha, there we go. But back to college. The computers there were all SGI's like Indigo's. We didn't have any Octane's. There were two O2's that people fought over. You could leave the desk for 30 minutes. - [Rob] And someone would ... Yeah. - If you were gone for longer than 30 minutes then somebody could swipe it. - It was fair game at that point. - [Clear] Absolutely, and people were watching like vultures. - [Rob] Yeah, once you got out of school where did you ... Did you immediately set off into visual effects, or did you start off in other mediums first? - Well, since the program was traditional animation they were kind of more grooming animators, and I really, really wanted to do effects, motion graphics, a little more abstract stuff, so I actually got scooped up by Square USA in 1999. I actually got an interview out in Hawaii before I graduated - [Rob] Right-right. - And then they scooped me up two months after I graduated, flew me out to Hawaii, set me up for a month. - [Rob] Wow. - This is when they were kind of burning through money like it was going out of style. Everything was really new, it was really exciting. Not that you have to be old and jaded these days, but the industry has changed a little bit. It's gone from really experimental to razor-thin profit margins. - [Rob] Right, not a lot of room to play around. - No, not a lot of room to make mistakes sometimes either. - Do you find that in the work you're doing now that with the shorter deadlines, and the lower budgets, do you feel like the work is suffering at all, or are people just doing more with less now? - I think Moore's law where computers get faster and faster, or faster and faster, where we accelerate kind of keeps up, like the power that I'm fiddling around with right now, I think it's 100 times faster than what I had when I started, and that really lets artists iterate faster and faster, and that, kind of, lets directors say, "Oh, I want this to go here," then they can just turn it around in a day. - [Rob] Sure-sure. So we're still pushing the computers as hard as we were, we're just able to do more, in a shorter amount of time. - There's still a little bit of lag between the really revolutionary stuff you get from academia, where people are able to sit down, and work on the same problem for four years, or what have you, and come up with really interesting live, live solutions, like this fluid I'm fiddling with right now. There are algorithms that would let me do tons more, but it just hasn't wrapped into the software itself. - [Rob] What projects did you work on from Square? - Just "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." - [Rob] Wow, that was a groundbreaking piece. - [Clear] It was groundbreaking. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in that, and a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor, but everyone worked together and created a nice product. - [Rob] That was really incredible. You look at the still images of that movie, they are stunning, absolutely stunning, but then as soon as they started going into motion, that's where you ran into problems, and I think a lot of folks had a hard time getting past that. - Some of the technology made at Square went on to make their own products, like, I think, SyFlex, which is a cloth solver, came out of Square. Also, some of the techniques and textures for facial resolutions of textures and what-not came out of there. - [Rob] Right-right. - Because there was a lot of care put into that, like the pores, skin textures, little baby hairs. - What did you transition to after that? - I ended up in Los Angeles and worked at Digital Domain for about four months doing render wrangling. - [Rob] Okay, wow. - Which, I guess, you can kind of think as a step down, but if you have a "hierarchy" of artists and technicians, but it allowed me to get a firmer technical hold. - Really, you took what some folks would be considered a demotion, but really it was almost a way to sort of, you know, garner a new set of skills, as a render wrangler, which is an incredibly important part of the process. When we work on computers that data has to go somewhere, and it's the most important part of the process is that data, because without it there is no film, there is no commercial, there is no animation. - There is a lot of work behind the scenes, and under the scenes making a movie. Whatever you see on the screen is not what came out of the artist's computer. There will be dropped frames. There will be assets that just disappear for no reason. - [Rob] Oh, my gosh. - So you need a paint roto, you need render wranglers to put all that together because the systems are just built by humans, and we're imperfect, and so the things we make are going to be imperfect. - [Rob] Did you find that, you know, once you were in that position was it easy for you to sort of make the jump back into compositing, or did you have to go back and prove yourself all over again? - I did kind of have to prove myself all over again. After Digital Domain I went in Orange County in Southern California, I, for about six months was a graphic designer redoing medical forms. - [Rob] Oh wow. - Yeah, it get kinds of rough sometimes. You just got to pick up the work where you can. - Yeah. - And it would crank out that stuff, and after that it was a long, hard slog. I think I hit the pavement for a good, solid two months. If I remember right my phone bill showed I called about 400 people. - [Rob] Wow, as part of your job search? - [Clear] As part of my job search, and this was before really widespread email, before everyone had a website ready to go. I just picked up the phone and called, "Hi, do you need any 3D people?" "No." "Okay." "Hi, do you need any 3D people? "Can I show you my reel. "Hi, do you need any 3 ... " And I would ship out VSH tapes. - [Rob] Right-right. - There's a visual effects resource guide you can get that has every production company, and all they do and their contact numbers and emails, and I just went from A to Z. - Wow, so it took you about two months then to land a new gig? - Eventually, Stargate, which has nothing to do with the TV show. - [Rob] Yeah. - Stargate, a little visual effects place in ... Not Eagle Rock, in South Pasadena, in South Pasadena picked me up, and I worked there for about a year honing my skills. It was basically the setup where "Here's the shot, we need smoke up front. "Here are the plates, go!" So you have to do your own matchmoving. You have to do your own modeling. You have to do your own effects. You have to do your own information. - [Rob] Really, so you're no longer part of a niche workflow. Now you're doing the whole thing, the whole shot, top to bottom. - And it was six of us down in the trench. Like a literal trench you would go downstairs, and we were all just in a line. We didn't have a render farm. It you wanted to render you would take it to a machine in the corner. We had a small ... Did we have a rack? Yeah, we had a rack. We had a rack of machines, and you would login, you would load your maya scene. You would say "render 1 to 100, step 5." Start rendering, go to the next machine. This was really before the explosion of render farms like Qube or Deadline, or whatever Pixar's free one is. - [Rob] Well there was a point, there was a point which the hardware costs dropped down so much. It was really after the turn of the millennium when things really started to come down in price where it became practical to actually have a render farm, you know, and not be Pixar or, you know, Sony, or any of the other big folks, and so I think that was really a groundbreaking time because now, you know, small shops like that could really start to compete. Did you see a dramatic turn in the level of work that you guys were doing? - I think that happened when I was at Tippett actually. So after a year at Stargate I kept talking to people, and a good friend from college actually, Joseph Hamdorf, who is still at Tippett now. - Wow. - [Clear] He's been there for maybe even 20 years. - Wow, that's incredible. - [Clear] There are some niches for career people, but on the whole, like, 90% of it you're just bouncing from studio to studio, and country to country. So they got my reel and called me up for an interview and they liked me, and I left Stargate to be a part of the crew working on the third "Matrix" movie. - Fantastic. - So doing some smoke and what-not, but it was a real change being part of a whole team as opposed to doing my own thing. So I had to learn how to be part of a pipeline and pull in the models here, and then pull in the animation here, and just work on my own little thing. - [Rob] Did that, like from a personality standpoint, so you're now, again, part of a team, and how was it, you know, making that transition from, you know, actually having to share your assets now and, you know, clean up after someone else's mess, or have them clean up after your mess, and, you know, that had to affect the development process too? - Like working at Square there were a lot of seasoned industry people, a lot of pros. It's really hard to make it in this industry if you're not a team player, if you're not a good communicator, so personality wise, it was great. Tippett is probably one of the best places I've ever worked at actually. I think about it fondly all the time. - [Rob] What kind of shows were you working on? - Let's see, there was "Matrix Revolutions." There was "Hellboy," "Constantine," "Shaggy Dog," and actually they were slowly grooming me. They were slowly advancing me giving me more responsibility. Like in "Shaggy Dog" I was the only FX artist. If you look at the credits it says "Clear Menser." - Wow. - [Clear] I did get some help from other people on other shows, but I was the one delivering the images. - [Rob] Wow, that's incredible. That's a lot of work for one person to take on. - It was about 40 shots, I think, lots of fur, lots of water. So after being the sole FX guy on "Shaggy Dog" I went to a lead and having three people and up to eight people under me for "Enchanted" the Disney movie with Amy Adams, and they're in New York. That was, I think, about half a dozen sequences of about a dozen shots each. - Wow. - [Clear] And that got pretty hairy. - Yeah, I bet it did. - There was a lot of assets, a lot of feedback with the director, and we were actually the sole visual effects house for that movie. - [Rob] Wow, and that doesn't happen very much now, where movies nowadays, you look at the end credits and there are -- - This shop, and this place, and this shop, and this shop, and this shop, and this shop, and this shop. - How is that, you know, some of that is due, you know, to both budgetary pressures, and you know, the speed at which movies have to get done. The studios keep asking for shorter and shorter deadlines, and they have to spread the workload out across multiple shops. How do you as a single VFX artist, you know, whether or not you're leading the team, or whether or not you're part of the team, you know, how do you ... Or maybe, even, do you feel vested in the product at the end when you really end up being a tiny cog in this gigantic machine pushing this massive movie out? - That's a really good question, like ownership of the shot by the artist I feel is just as good as having an artisan or a craftsman, who wants to make a beautiful product, so if the producers come in, or the client comes in, and starts changing a lot, kind of changing the ground underneath you, it's hard to get attached. - [Rob] Right-right. - But Tippett had some really good producers that would really fight for the artist, and say "I'm sorry, no, that's over budget, "we can't make that change." - Wow. - But you don't always get producers like that. Sometimes they'll get one's that just say "yes" to everything. - Right, that's a really dangerous thing to say yes to everything because then it sets up an unrealistic expectation. You know, your started off in school as a classically trained artist, you like computers making that kind of imagery, and you've acquired, you know, modeling skills and texturing and lighting and rendering along the way, so what would be the ... Like what's next, what's the thing that you're looking to develop and how do you go about developing your new skills and still, you know, earn a living at the same time? - When you're in a really large studio you can, like, help out another department. Say, your FX TD, and you want to learn compositing you can help roto a shot, or you could help crank out a bunch of repetitious stuff. You can basically be an assistant to another department, but if you're a generalist it's a little hard to break out. You basically have to do it on your own at home in your spare time. - [Rob] Wow. - So weekends basically. There's a lot of ... What's the best way to put it? A lot of sacrifice necessary to branch out because your employer wants you to do your job. They don't necessarily want you to learn other things. - [Rob] Right. - But you do have larger studios like ILM or Pixar that have additional learning. They want you to keep up with your art skills. They want you to animate. They want you to learn storytelling. - [Rob] Right-right. - One way you could do it is just go Online, like digital tutors, or Lynda, or forums. Almost every piece of software has their own independent forum apart from the software place itself. Me, personally, I'd like to go deeper into Houdini looking at CHOPS, and then looking at rigging as well. That seems to be one of the more mysterious parts of Houdini, like there's actually a bunch of stuff about rigging like with muscles and capture regions. It's just an effects package right now, but it can do, it can do character stuff. - [Rob] Yeah, it's interesting that, you know, certain tools tend to become a lot like artists, certain tools tend to become thought of for one thing in particular, and it's easy to forget, you know, that they have other capabilities. Do you composite mostly in NUKE or do you find you're doing a lot of compositing? - [Clear] I do do some compositing in NUKE, mostly to get a handle on what a specular pass actually does, what a diffuse pass actually does, what I can actually do with a normals pass. Theoretically I know that with a normals pass I can do some relighting, but how does that actually work? What nodes do I have to use? What math do I actually have to use? So I can demo that for the compositors who not only don't have time to learn it, but don't have any plug-ins that work for them. - [Rob] Right-right, so you find that experimenting with the composites helps your 3D work? - [Clear] Absolutely, it helps me communicate with the other departments, and that's really the biggest thing to making the work go by faster, making iterations easier, so they can talk to me, and say, "Oh hey, can you make this thing like this for me?" And that's necessarily in the job description, but it's not necessarily a personal relationship. You kind of have to build that as you're working. - [Rob] Right-right. - So you want to know everyone's name, and then you want them to know that you're open to suggestions, and you're there to help them, even if you're in 3D and they're in 2D. You have one more D, but that doesn't mean you're better. - [Rob] It's not a D arms race. - No. - [Rob] So tell me about this thing you've been building here while we've been talking. - [Clear] Well, my intention was to have a fluid splashing down and catching on fire, but -- - [Rob] I was distracted a little bit. - I was a little distracted there at the end, but what I was able to do ... Is this the right one? That is not the right node. That's why I'm having problems here. There we go. What I have been able to do is create an emitter, have it bounce off of something, have kind of a dynamic noise emitter, and then it disappears into a sink at the bottom. - [Rob] Nice. - [Clear] Those things are all immediately available from the shelf. One of the things that Houdini has really worked on is their user interface. It's gone from super technical and gray and unfriendly, to colorful and helpful and really high level. - Is there ... Inside this file here, you know, maybe you could walk us through a couple of the nodes like, you know, the emitter itself. What's causing the particles to come out of the sphere? - [Clear] Sure, so choose the sphere and jump in there. It's just that basic geometry and it says "create surface volume" which ... Oh, then you set its control (mumbling) There you go. Which actually has a whole bunch of stuff in the guts which basically builds velocity volumes and particle volumes through this interface. - [Rob] Nodes within nodes. - [Clear] Oh yeah, procedurality and nested nodes is how Houdini builds its power. So I'm telling it to have a curling noise at a scale of 12, and we can actually visualize the velocities here. - [Rob] Oh wow, that shows you the speed and direction of the particles. - [Clear] Yeah, it kind of looks like electricity at the moment, but each of those curves is a single vector through space, so if a particle was going over one frame it would make that trail. - [Rob] Right-right. - [Clear] So after those volumes and particles are created they go into this dot network. I'll make that big again. They're read in over here as a source and that actually points up here back to the original geometry. One of the other things that's feeding in here is the sink which was that big box underneath. There it is. So this kind of smoky volume here, all of the particles, all of the density that's coming in here gets killed. - [Rob] Excellent. - [Clear] Instead of just running off into infinity, and then the collision object is box one comes in over on this side right after the solver itself. So box one is there, and then afterwards it gets read. Let's make this a little cleaner. It gets read up here. So you kind of see the particles. Get some surfacing with VDB's, and then I cached it out here. That's what that -- - [Rob] That enables the playback speed. - [Clear] Yup, yup, yup. So it's some quick stuff. I also changed the viscosity of the fluid. Open over here. There's actually a couple of places you have to do it. You can do it here. I can actually make it way more viscous. I don't know if that's entirely visible. A little bit. - [Rob] I do see definitely a difference in the -- - [Clear] Let's make it nearly solid. - [Rob] Well that shows a huge difference now. - [Clear] See how it's kind of like toothpaste, and the viscosity doesn't need to be global either. I can do it on a point-by-point basis, or have it based on a collision with something else, or even have it change over time. - [Rob] Nice. - [Clear] Yeah, so let's have it go from ... So let's have it start not very viscous, and then as it goes along it's going to get just more and more viscous. So some of the easier stuff to do is some of the things that come out of the package, but Houdini has all of this stuff, all of the pieces that build it available to you so you can look how it's built, build your own thing or chop it down to make something way more efficient, or add on your own things, or combine pieces as you learn. - [Rob] So throughout your career you've had a lot of stages in your development that have all kind of coincided with technology in the industry, technology that you've had access to, you know, can you tell me a little bit about how you've been able to keep up with that, and not only about yourself, but how other artists are able to or can be inspired to keep up with it, and how maybe they can, you know, or they and you can give back to the community and to make things much easier to grasp? - The thing about advancing technology and making things faster is it just makes it easier to get into it. It makes it so people coming out of high school can have four years of maya experience. Say they have a demo reel of a tiger crawling up a mountain, which would have been completely impossible 20 years ago, so I feel like I'm being bested by the kids coming out these days, like they've got more of an advantage, but there's still the work experience. - There's still in artistry as well. I mean, you know, at the end of the day the tools don't make, you know, who you are as an artist. The art makes who you are as an artist. - [Clear] Your ability to take critique. Your ability to work with a crew that's probably the biggest thing to instill in new workers or new artists. I think the best advice is classical art training, and learn to get your eye used to the real world. - [Rob] Right. - Even if you're going to abstract it, even if you're going to use water colors or paper cutouts, there's still a motion and shape and form that you have to have your eyes open to. One of the things I hear a lot from high prestige places like ILM and Pixar is they want to see your sketchbook. They don't care if you're a programmer or an animator. They want to know that you can look at the world, and then bring that information back and then translate it onto the paper into 2D. - Wow, and the quality of the sketches isn't nearly as important as the fact that you're sketching? - That you're sketching, that you're looking at life, that you know how to look. Even programmers and pipeline people. I was just talking to a good friend of mine, Dan. He keeps sketchbooks. He was just saying that over the last six months, where he's been unemployed, he's filled out a stack of sketchbooks just going down to the coffee shop and sketching people, because remember at the base of it, it's art. We're entertaining people. We're pulling them in. We're showing them new stories.
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