Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bucks Animation students visit Blue GFX at London's South Bank


Blue GFX Expo is the annual London showcase for the visual effects industry and the software that drives it, sponsored by (among many others) the software-wizards Autodesk - who make Maya and 3DStudioMax, and much of the other software that we use in the VFX industry.

Housed slightly incongruously in the vast and rambling Edwardian County Hall building on London’s South Bank, the Expo was marvelously hard to find, but highly rewarding to attend.

Visual Effects Artists aren’t generally the best speakers. Most of us talk in a strange form of jargon that is only intelligible to fellow sufferers of the VFX virus. How many digital artists can explain what they do to their Mum before her eyes glaze over and she says "that's nice, dear" before changing the subject?

Demonstrating software can be a dry business at the best of times. It isn’t a recipe for crowd-pleasing speeches. Still, with so much of our industry being technology-led, it’s essential to keep up with the newest releases, lest you get left behind in the race for pipeline efficiency and a speedy workflow.

Yesterday's river View. Earth hath nothing to show more fair...

The Expo was housed in the magnificent County Hall building on London's South Bank. It was built between 1911 and 1922 in the Edwardian Baroque style, the last gasp of high imperial self-confidence before architecture fell under the spell of modernism.

County Hall
Today, County Hall hosts an odd variety of attractions including the London Eye, The London Aquarium, a couple of hotels - and the London Film Museum.

Grand staircase at County Hall
Since the Expo took place next door to the London Film Museum, the corridors were filled with bits of old movie sets. Here's one from one of those end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it pictures that comes out every summer.
Lady Liberty is in the house
BlueGFX was excellent; a showcase of talent, including presentations from some of the very best animators and visual effects artists working in the UK today.

A number of the presenters were showcasing VRay, a relatively new rendering system that aims to render everything you need - faster better and cheaper than ever before. We saw amazing clips from the Elder Scrolls. We ogled at beautiful breakdown reels showing how CG elements were combined with live action to produce stunning visual effects work. Digital doubles, CG environments, smoke, hair simulation. Everything is faster, cheaper, quicker, bringing film-quality visual effects to episodic TV and games. 
IKEA Chair - real, or CGI? Who can tell?
But it's not just movies. Even your friendly local IKEA catalogue is now one third fakery. That means IKEA are photographing digital furniture in 3D software, rather than shooting the real thing. But why go to the trouble? Because its easier and cheaper, and the viewer can’t tell the difference. Plus, they can adjust the renders to suit local tastes. The kitchen of a Hasidic family in Jerusalem will look different from that of an uptown Manhattan socialite. Rather than re-build a real kitchen, you simply adjust a digital one. Quicker, cheaper, and more flexible.

The UK's largest TV animation studio
I got to meet Tom Box and Adam Shaw, the creators of Blue Zoo, who gave an excellent presentation on how they started up their studio from scratch in 2000, having just graduated from the National Centre for Computer Studies at Bournemouth University - an inspiring story for talented graduates everywhere.

And what an incredible opportunity for our students to meet the founders of one of London's leading animation studios. How often do you get the chance to talk in person with the people who - a few years from now - will be looking at your demo reel and deciding whether or not to offer you a job?

We also heard a fabulous talk by Framestore's Diarmid Harrison-Murray who directed the excellent title sequence for Skyfall. It took me back to some not-so-happy memories of Soho VFX work as he explained having to work 3 days without sleep in order to get the job done on time.

So secret even the artists weren't allowed to know
And, astonishingly, the team at Framestore were not even allowed the hear the music for the title sequence until near the end of production - it was too secret to let the artists hear it. But how can you possibly animate a musical title sequence without the music - and still do a brilliant job?

When he was asked what was the biggest lesson he had learned in visual effects, he said this:

"You have to get used working with clients. They will routinely mess up your beautiful work, make stupid changes. Being able to do this - and not scream into a pillow - is a vital skill to learn. And that goes for all client work".

Amen to that.

---Alex

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