Trained as an illustrator, Daren made the move to VFX in 1997 and is nowHead of Framestore's texture department. Credits include:Walking With Dinosaurs, (PrimeTime Emmy award 2000), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Golden Compass, The Dark Knight, Clash of the Titans, Paddington, Guardians of the Galaxy. Here he talks about his career in VFX and more specifically about being a VFX texture artist.
What is your current job role? Can you describe it in a few sentences?
I am a texture painter, and head the VFX Texture Department. I paint textures for assets, mostly hero and character/creatures. As a department, we work closely with both the modelling and lighting/lookdev departments, as together we make up part of the asset build team. It’s important to liaise with modellers as the details often cross over from geometry displacement, in to bump mapping, these need to work together, likewise, the UVs need to work efficiently. The textures need to render in a shaded lit set up, so we work alongside look dev artists to achieve this. We set up a basic look dev with custom Mari shaders, to ensure that the maps we publish are going to work as they should, scale of detail and colour values. The final rendering is done with Arnold. As a department head, I am also responsible for any issues regarding the whole texture team, which will span multiple shows, and have people working on a variety of subject matter. Assigning people to shows, addressing problems with pipeline, tools etc.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
A satisfaction of creating shots that hopefully look better than anything seen previously. The end results are usually worth all the input.
What are the most important skills and attributes for a person in your job?
Patience and perseverance is essential. Often a texture painter will be required to bring a creative element to the task, taking a concept or brief, and making it photo-real. The ability to interpret a brief, read what’s being inferred, adapt to changes and turn around those changes quickly.
The job is highly artistic, you need to be able to paint, but in a very lateral and technical way. It pays to be able to predict what your painted maps will do in a shaded lit environment, as you paint, before it goes in to render.
What are the top three things that you suggest anyone wanting to do your job learns?
Observation – everything you create will need to look real. To ensure this happens, you need to constantly look at references, never make things up. Inspiration from the real world will always pay off.
Speed – you will always be asked to turn things around fast. Other departments depend on your work for their own tasks to progress. Everyone is working as part of a team, things need to keep moving.
Technical tricks – all VFX work uses software, knowing how to make the most of your particular tools, create a workflow that is as simple and efficient as possible, that achieves the desired results. Over complicating will slow things down.
What inspired you to get into the VFX industry?
I wanted to paint digitally. I had been using real paint, but saw the benefits of digital tools. In the mid 1990’s, I saw potential in computers and wanted to make the switch.
At that time, VFX was new, and the film that first broke the barriers was Jurassic Park, which seems to be the pivotal point in digital VFX being a viable way to create photo-real images.
Did you pursue this career through any educational routes?
I trained as an illustrator, using acrylics. This taught me how to observe, translate references into artwork. This is at the core of all VFX, making things look believable, often photo-real. Back in the early days, people often made the transition to VFX from a range of area, illustration being a good route for texture. There was no VFX training officially in place back then.
What kind of private study did you undertake in addition to any educational programs?
I picked up Photoshop whilst working in game development. It allowed me to familiarize myself to working digitally, though not directly applicable to VFX. At that point in time, a good knowledge of Photoshop was enough. It was a simpler time.
How did you start in the industry – what was your first job and how did you get it?
I had been working in games, but found it limiting. I saw an advert, asking for a digital painter for a project called ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’. It was a television series that the BBC were planning on creating. I had no idea what the role entailed, but I knew I had to work on it. At that point in time, Framestore were largely an advertising and compositing facility, so 3D VFX work was a new venture for them, and me.
I had a portfolio of photo real images, and some dinosaurs, so it was enough for Framestore to take the leap of faith and hire me.
What was the biggest thing you immediately had to learn in your first role?
I didn’t really know much about what VFX texture painting was, or much about the VFX pipeline, so it was in at the deep end. There were no other texture painters at Framestore, or even in London, I was the first dedicated to the role, so I had to formulate a technique from scratch, and do it quickly.
There was a period of experimentation, where I made my mistakes, learned what was possible, and not possible, and had to learn how to achieve the required task, (photo real textures for 40 animals, in 18 months, all on my own). If I had more knowledge at the time, I would have been terrified, but my inexperience meant I just got on with it.
Do you have any skills that make you stand out amongst your peers?
I think my art/illustration background was invaluable. I notice that VFX courses don’t focus on painting. They give a generalist overview of the entire process, which is good, but it doesn’t give focus. Having a solid artistic training as a base means I then just had to apply this to a VFX context. The art training is probably the most difficult and time consuming part, so anyone with those skills has the edge.
How did you progress in your career – where there any skills that you had to learn to support your progress?
The art of texture painting has changed considerably over the years. Initially, I needed to paint in Photoshop, and work with a Technical Director who would project the images on to geometry. Then came various 3D paint packages, of variable quality, all of which made the task of texture painting more complete, but also more technical. Now we use Mari as the primary paint tool, Photoshop use is limited. Mari gives most of what you need for current VFX, multiple tiles, layering, shading/lighting, etc. The tasks that previously were split across different software, is now included in one. This was a long time coming, but I’m glad we now have Mari. The quality of expectation has also risen immensely, so you are asked to put more and more in to the work.
It used to be the case that one 10k tile was enough, now we are expected to use much higher resolution, the level detail has exploded. Shading is now a bigger issue, that extra realism is expected, a texture painter needs to understand what the process entails, and how to achieve the results, teams are bigger, the level of co-operation is higher.
In retrospect, was there anything you would have done differently to get into the industry?
I would have tried to get in earlier. My timing was good, I was in the right place at the right time, but I could have explored digital more thoroughly in the early days. Now that sounds odd, as everyone is working digitally from the start of their training, even my kids are using computers, but in the 1990’s it was still a new thing. No one knew where it would lead.
What are the top three things that you suggest anyone wanting to get into the industry learns?
1. Learn to paint and draw. Everything hinges on those skills.
2. Familiarize yourself with the methodology of VFX studios, what is the pipeline, and how would you fit in to that?
3. Be prepared to start at the bottom, and learn fast. No one comes in fully formed, it takes a long time to progress.