The tools of the film trade
Joe Lamont-Fisher is at the centre of research and development for Double Negative, one of the world’s leading visual effects companies.
He is responsible for making sure that the IT tools are in place to make films like Inception look as good as possible. We caught up with him to see how he found his way into the glittering world of film.
What does Double Negative do?
We create big effects for major movies like some of the monsters, explosions and destruction scenes you see on screen.
And what is your role there?
I’m a research and development developer, which is essentially a programmer. I program the tools for the animators and artists here.
Can you describe your day at Double Negative for us?
We have a system for getting our assets into major [computer] applications that we buy in. The system has been made so people can pick up other people's work as it makes its way through the pipeline. We do a lot of testing and maintenance and we spend a lot of time talking to the heads and supervisors to get an idea of what they want, what’s going wrong and what we can improve.
So the tools you design can be described as bespoke?
What did you do before starting at Double Negative?
I pretty much started here after doing a computer science degree at university. I started out in a tech support role for six months before starting in RND.
What skills did they ask for?
For the technical role, they wanted a knowledge of networks, systems set ups, Linux and basic 3D knowledge. For programming later on, a good knowledge of programming for maya in mel and python. if you knew C++ it was a bonus.
What A Level subjects did you take?
For A Level I did computing, economics and physics.
Can you describe a normal day at work?
Much of our day is spent in maintenance on current projects. This can be tweaking functionality and bug fixes. Once we've been through that storm, we develop new features and come up with new ideas. So, if a system for helping animators to create a library of animation cycles is needed, for instance, then we'll look into that and see what's needed.
Is your role unique to the film industry?
I do not think it’s unique at all really. Our company needs tools to get raw assets from film and to add 3D and effects. Other digital media companies, such as games development, will have similar process. To get the finished product out the other side, there is a process you go through and our role is to fulfill that - I think that task has parallels in several other jobs.
Are there any particular challenges you face in your role?
In Hellboy II we needed to get thousands of little flying creatures on screen at the same time and develop a system for generating big robots. Those objects put too much pressure on our systems for our animators to be able to animate them. So, we looked at how we could speed that process up, how to get multiple instances of a character into the scene at the same time, how to put in variety so they don’t all look the same. We put it all together to make something that helps [the animators] get the end shot.
Hellboy II - Image Courtesy of Universal Home Entertainment
So, one of your biggest challenges is processing power?
For the big films we're always looking to push what we have. We've got the highest spec machines we can get hold of, but even then - when you’ve got five or six high resolution characters in a scene - animators can’t just drag them around and expect them to follow, you have to do something else.
What is your working environment like?
Creative is a good word for it. It’s busy, people are constantly on the go and we're quite often looking into things we can improve. But at the same time, it's an informal place and it’s got quite a relaxed atmosphere. Despite frequent tight schedules, everyone's friends and everyone's willing to talk over lunch or over a beer afterwards about what we're doing. We have big nights out as a team, which means that everybody knows each other.
So, everyone feels as if they have a stake in the work that Double Negative does?
Yes, and that’s reflected in the research and development department. Sometimes a particularly annoying requirement can cause frustration and seem to take ages but once your past that it feels like you've contributed. Nothing ever stays the same...you get a new requirement and you get interested in that and make it as good as possible. Everything we do is really important for the next stage and if we do it slowly or if it’s not good enough, it will slow other people down. We need to be as good as we can so the others can get the results out of it and put better pictures on the screen.
So your department acts as facilitators of the technology for others?
Our department and all departments in general will get together at the beginning of a show to make sure they have all they need to get through.
Where do you see your career in five years?
There are two ideas in my head. One is going further in the research and development side of things to make really in-depth technical tools, say for fluid simulation. You get into maths and some really hardcore C++ programming to get these tools working. The other option is to stick with what I’m doing and go further with the pipeline role, to be more in charge.
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