When a person begins work as a 3D animator, he has to keep in mind that he will be expected to work as part of a team and be productive. There are different methods of determining productivity, but usually he will be expected to come “up to speed” quickly. A military background, for example, should give a person an edge in understanding the need for being disciplined and prepared to contribute to the team from day one.
Two basic aspects come into play. One is that an employer will expect certain skills with a fair degree of mastery. The other is that additional skills which are not necessarily a spelled-out requirement will be a big help in increasing productivity.
Suppose you were hired by Pixar to work on the movie Monsters, Inc. While it would be nice to choose the storyline, the types of monsters, etc., in reality those decisions are made by people far above you. Since you are a new hire you will be on a team of 2-4 people doing something tedious, difficult, mundane but absolutely essential. When I make 3D animations and movies, they sometimes do not turn out as expected. But as a “solo act” I can say, “That’s still cool. I will change the story to fit it.” As part of a team you will not have that luxury. You must perform your assigned task and make it fit in with the team’s and with the project as presented.
Suppose your assignment is to make hair for Sully. In the real world this might not have been a separate assignment but this is an illustration. This will require a fairly thorough understanding of Pixar’s Renderman Software. Is the hair a plug-in module? How thick do they want it? How long should it be? How should it move in relation to the overall model? Stiff like a bristle brush? Like a horse’s mane? Will a special program be needed for collision prevention? Co-operation with other teams might be required if your project integrates with theirs. Some decisions must be made very quickly. Other things such as color might not even have been decided yet, but will need to be acted upon as soon as they are made.
Is it fur or hair? A 3D animator is expected to be able to distinguish certain things as soon as he starts a job, to bring certain specific abilities with him and understand certain things the first day.
1. Really boring stuff you have to know
High end 3D animation software operates on multiple computers at the same time. UNIX is a system designed to operate on multiple computers. Linux is a free (open source) version with many similarities. You must learn UNIX to be productive in this field. The book UNIX in a Nutshell is a good beginning for learning the commands. You will need a computer with UNIX or Linux installed in order to get familiar with the systems. There are differences between the two, especially the fact that Linux works with smaller systems and UNIX works with much larger, sometimes worldwide ones.
Most 3D animation programs are written in a high-end language called C++. While understanding C++ is not essential, since there will be others on the team who specialize in that, you need a basic understanding. Take at least a semester of a programming language, such as Pascal, and avoid programs such as Basic which rely on Spaghetti Logic.
While you don’t need to know Calculus all of this is based on higher math and you need a solid background in non-linear Algebra. All the talk about model placements in a scene are done through Cartesian co-ordinates and is the basic language you will use every day. While you don’t usually talk about vectors per se, every model, every light ray, every scene or set, and every motion is using vectors. You need a very thorough understanding of what they are and how they work. If you have no concept of vectors or Cartesian coordinates a good introduction is Albert Einstein’s Evolution of Physics.
Stephen Hawking’s book a Brief History of Time deal with vectors and similar subjects in chapters 2 and 3. The illustrated version has lots of cool pictures.
2. Really boring stuff that is helpful but may or may not be necessary
The instruction manual of whatever 3D program you are working with could be thousands of pages. At first you will be concentrating on one small section because you must begin producing before you achieve complete mastery of the program.
How the hardware works is another area where you will be unable to achieve complete mastery before becoming productive. Has the program hung up simply because it is ray-tracing? Does it need to be reset to free up the computer? Will you wipe out the work of several other teams if you hit reset at the wrong time?
Do you know how to compile the program? Usually someone on the team, or on another team altogether, specializes in that. But if you have a basic understanding you will be more productive.
Probably no one will ask how well you type or at what speed, but you will be more productive with fast and accurate typing skills than someone who lacks them.
Personal discipline means you can’t spend time on Facebook, chat or emails but take your assignment seriously. Pieces of hardware that you might be more comfortable with or familiar with will increase productivity. Trackball versus mouse, something as simple as desk height, easy ability to stand up and stretch or get some exercise. Interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate, will make everyone’s job easier, or perhaps possible in the first place.
How well do you get information out of other people? No torture techniques, but the ability to obtain needed information rapidly by asking the right questions, making only a minor interruption in the other person’s productivity.
Do you understand the goals and objectives of the company you work for? Do you enjoy your work? It’s possible to be productive and good at what you do without enjoying it, but enjoyment helps you and the people around you create a better work environment.
3. How 3D software operates or works
All 3-D Software programs have certain ways of operating, certain divisions of labor. Different programs use different names for the same thing. The first thing that needs to be done is to build a model. It could be something as simple as a ball, as complex as a person, or a spaceship. Most programs use a system of connecting polygons where the program will render the polygons. Hash Animation Master uses splines and patches. Others use nurbs and metanurbs.
If you are making a chocolate donut with sprinkles on top, you will begin with a primitive called a torus, deform it and add to it. You can add each individual sprinkle, made of polygons or patches. You could also apply a decal of sprinkles to it if it need not be as detailed.
Once the model is made, it is placed in some type of scene. Hash calls this scene a choreography. Bryce makes the scene separate from the model. Setting up a scene can be simple or difficult. Scenes are often a flat panel with a video background. Shadows of objects that cast on the scene give a realistic cue to the eye to make people see the object as part of the scene.
Determining motion is the next consideration. The donut might only move if someone picks it up and throws it. The camera might move around it. In the example of hair for Sully in Monsters Inc., it must be attached and move when he moves, when the wind blows, when others brush up against it, all in realistic, believable fashion. A particular patch of skin might need 10 hairs. Or would four be enough? Will you need 100? All of this must take place with the least amount of rendering time and computer processing power.
After putting the models in the scene, figuring out the motions, completing it as a scene, the computer must be told how the light should fall and what it will look like to the camera. Usually the largest team working on a 3D animated movie will be the team responsible for lighting.
Once all this is done, rendering of each individual frame takes place. Many quick renders will be done along the way to make sure all the parts work together properly and the details are correct. The final render should be a large scale version of the quick renders.
4. Putting It All Together
A movie director will have many things going on at the same time which must be coordinated. 3D rendering is the same way. The leader of the team or teams has to put them all together. The scenes with the simplest sets and the fewest number of actors or models will be finished and set to render first, since rendering takes the longest time. Meanwhile more intensive projects taking more “people power” will be allocated and coordinated after those are set up and running.
Staying with the Monsters, Inc. example, Mike has no hair, only one eye, and he is sometimes seen talking in a relatively bare scene with no one else present. Such simple scenes can be set up and rendering while more difficult characters like Sully are being worked on. This also applies to more difficult scenes like many doors running on tracks in all directions.
Many skills operating all at once must come into play with 3D animation. The desire for this career might begin with learning to play video games. But loving video games, even being good at them, will not make you a 3D game designer.
Some people want to be automotive engineers when they don’t yet even know how to drive a car. There are drivers, there are mechanics, and there are engineers. It’s a process, an acquisition of various levels of skills. These skills have to be learned and used together or nothing is accomplished. To progress to a higher level in a career, you must take the first step to acquire the first skill. But you may not be able to do anything with it until you master the second skill. If you can get these skills down and make them work together, 3D animation can be very rewarding.