Interview with Optimus Chicago – After Effects, Cinema 4D & Arnold
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Interview with Optimus Chicago – After Effects, Cinema 4D & Arnold
Christopher: What is the core focus of what Optimus does in terms of content creation?
Ken Winke: Sure. So first, we call ourselves a post production house. Primarily we do post work for advertising clients, brands, and agencies here in Chicago. So that’s anything from a traditional 30 second TV spot, to something that’s more longform and more like storytelling. More of an anthem piece that brands might use on their websites to tell a more interesting story out of what they’re selling. And then stuff like what you see advertising shifting to nowadays which is maybe very short, targeted stuff. Directly for the web and for social media – stuff to really grab a viewer as they flip past it on a phone, or something that catches your eye and really draws you in as quickly and punchy as they can. So within that, it’s sort of full service. We have all the parts of what we see commercial post is as being editorial, audio, design, graphics, the effects, finishing and color. So primarily, with mediaworkstations, the design department tends to be 2D, 3D design animation and some CGI. Those are the ones who use these computers and are where Tyler and Luis are from, who we’re talking to.
Christopher: Yeah, perfect. I think probably the best thing to do is for each of you to do a quick backdrop of how you got into CG or MoGraph, whatever your core specialty is, and to talk about the project that was kind of the backbreaker. That had you guys say, we did it and we’re grateful, but we really need new hardware.
Luis Mayorga: Okay, I’ll start. So I have been working at Optimus for 12 years. I came here, to the School of Art Institute in Chicago for college. I focused on stop motion and Claymation, and from there I did an internship here at Optimus, and I started getting more interest in 3D, especially in the design department. So after a year, I started getting into the department and slowly started working more with Cinema 4D, After Effects, and now I’m focusing more in 3D, CGI, and Cinema 4D. So right now, my title here is senior animator. We try to do a little bit more of a 3D package — CGI and some shots that we need to add elements. So that’s what I do, more animation and rendering.
Christopher: So your core applications are Cinema 4D, After Effects and just really core CG work. Do you use V-Ray or 3DS Max or Maya?
Luis: Yes, and I use Arnold for rendering.
Christopher: You have the right workstation then – our i-X2 is the best workstation for Arnold, with all those cores.
Luis: It’s pretty powerful.
Christopher: Tyler, you want to jump in and tell us where it all began for you? If there was like some magic spark? I always like hearing that too, if there was something that…
Luis and Tyler
Tyler Nelson: Yeah, yeah. Well I started my interest in just general production, back in high school actually. As sort of a TV program that they offered there. It was a great, really in depth program but it was focused more on live event coverage. They had a remote production truck so I started getting really interested in live event coverage and mainly like sports broadcasting. So starting in college, I went to Columbia and my interest was really to get into that. My dream was to work for ESPN; to either be like a tech director, or a director in the truck and be part of the truck crew. And the more I started learning about the truck and how that operated, and the more I started learning about how relentlessly brutal the production trade was, I found myself getting really interested in how they were doing live graphics. Using kyron generators and all that equipment in the truck. A lot of the trucks were equipped with some kind of graphics generator that was routed through a switcher, and they were able to operate that live. So when I saw that stuff, I got really interested in not so much the operation of the graphics, but how they were designed and where those visuals came from. And really didn’t know too much about the background of that, and the more I started doing some research about it, the more I started talking with people in the city. I kind of got my eyes opened to the commercial world in Chicago. And at the time when I was looking, there were several companies that did what Optimus did and had motion graphics departments, but I was really impressed with the motion graphics department specifically at Optimus. And so at the time, I was still pretty young but I tried to get in there as an intern, and I’d be able to secure that. So I interned, just as a general intern at Optimus for about a year, before I moved up to design, and I think I’ve been up in the design room now with Luis for about 8 years. I kind of learned the tricks of the trade there. I really didn’t know too much about motion graphics; I had dabbled with After Effects a little bit before I got there, just on my laptop, and I wasn’t doing anything special. I thought I was good but it turns out I wasn’t, until I realized that when I got there. And then starting working at Optimus, it’s pretty crucial for all of our designers to know Cinema4D as well. So even though Luis and one of our other designers really are great at 3D visual effects, compositing, I know a little bit of 3D. I’m certainly not as mastered as those guys are, and I tend to do more motion graphics animation. As well as working on pitches and board design, and usually, it’s a little more of a flatter sort of design approach.
Christopher: Yeah, okay.
Tyler: So for me, it’s mainly After Effects still with a little bit of Cinema 4D.
Christopher: The i-X Mediaworkstation is the best workstation for After Effects and Cinema 4D – though the i-X2 is a better choice if physical render in C4D is central to your workflow. Having a really fast chip in your machine is key for Adobe CC — and lots of RAM for After Effects, if you’re using it more and more is also important. Luis, jumping back to you for a second. Your training in stop motion sounds like really good training to start with, and I think we did speak about this previously. Could say a thing or two about how that informs your creative process?
Luis: Yeah. So yes, stop motion helped me do a quicker transition to 3D and CGI. Just as an idea, working in the 3D space and lighting and camera work.
Christopher: Makes sense. Ken, to jump back to you for a second, before you made this move, Optimus was pretty much an all Mac studio, right?
Ken: Yeah, we were Macs pretty much across the board and in our design department, it was all probably 2007, 2008, or 2009 Mac Pros. So not even the latest round of real Apple refresh, but the one before that. And they worked, they were fine, they were great when we bought them eight years ago. But they were definitely showing their age, and the fact was that they’re old technology. Some of that was that Apple’s roadmap where they lingered and really didn’t get much better. So I can talk a bit about that, the decision, and how that came about.
Christopher: Yeah, and if there was a specific project that forced your hand where you just looked around and said, yeah, we’ve got to do something now.
Ken: The transition, the biggest conversation part of it was really more of the OS than the computer. It was well, what’s it going to be like running Windows instead of running Mac OS, especially with the comfort, familiarity. Not so much the applications even, because Adobe is pretty similar and Cinema 4D is mostly similar.
Christopher: You’re basically saying the hurdle was really the OS; making sure that everyone, your team, was good moving from Mac OS to Windows. Given — and understanding at the same time, core applications, such as Adobe CC – the UI is going to be damn near identical, right?
Ken: Control versus command keys and some of the keystrokes are a little bit different and the parts of the GUI might act a little bit differently, but functionality wise, especially with Adobe, they’re really close. So it’s just when you’re outside of that, when you’re maybe doing stuff like moving files around or just trying to navigate a network or stuff like that is where it starts to feel sort of icky you have to adjust.
Christopher: Was there a specific project that broke the camel’s back?
Tyler: I’m trying to think of a specific project. I think for us it might have been several projects kind of leading up to this moment where we knew our computers were getting a little bit outdated. One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of times we will be working with a lot of footage in a project, and we notice that the heavier these projects were getting and the fact that we weren’t using a lot of HD clips anymore, but we’re now working with a lot of 2K, 4K, larger frames. If we’re ever doing cleanup work too, just working with a huge project; render times were getting I think significantly slower through the years. That was at least the one thing that I was noticing. I’m trying to think of the specific job. I think last time we had talked, I had mentioned there was a project we did for Dove Chocolate which I think was going on during the transition between the two computers. That’s sort of a good project to compare both of our workstations and I know with that one specifically, it was a combination of working with a ton of 2D artwork that was pretty large resolution-wise out of Photoshop. As well as 3D projects out of Cinema 4D, and even though it was a really sort of artistic approach at it, it still involved a lot of copying and lighting and post effects and I noticed with the old workstations we were really getting bogged down.
Christopher: Luis, you worked on the Dove Chocolate project as well. Did you have some comments about that?
Luis: Yeah. I only worked for a small section of it and I was doing more chocolate simulation. Just that splash of chocolate, so I only had a small part in that project.
Dove Chocolate project
Christopher: And then it sounds like you guys ordered those workstations right as you were finishing up that project. Is there another big project that you guys are really proud of that gave you the night and day experience using your previous Mac Pro towers, the cheese graters, versus the mediaworkstations?
Luis: Bosch. It was the one with I think it was three and a half minutes of 4K, 360 video with it. So that one, it helped us a lot; working a little bit faster and to be able to composite in the render really quick.
Christopher: And you composited everything in After Effects.
Luis: No, in that one, we used Nuke.
Christopher: Yeah, much easier for stitching, right?
Luis: Yes and also just the tools we used in that one were a little bit faster than After Effects.
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. Nuke is really a feature film ready product; it’s really robust. And did you have some comments about the Bosch, Tyler? Were you involved in that one?
Tyler: I was not as involved. I think I helped Luis with a few minor background elements but not enough to really speak to. I know Luis and a few of our other designers were really in the trenches with it but I got away from that one scott-free. But you know, the project that was definitely using our new systems and made a big difference for me was a spot we had done for Shedd Aquarium. We’ve done work with this aquarium before, and a lot of times we’ve created animals in CG which has given us way more flexibility as far as our animation. We had built animals in CG so we could actually control all of their animation and behavior. And for the latest project that we did with them, they wanted to showcase an exhibit that was all about the natural beauty of the fish. So a big thing for them was to do no CG, and use only real footage. Which, for us, was challenging on two fronts. It was really hard to shoot fish.
Christopher: No, you’re kidding. They were not behaving?
Shedd Aquarium project
Tyler: They were not behaving. They, a lot of times, would want all of these fish to be staring at the screen together. Sometimes 12, 15 different species of fish, but none of them could be together in real life. So they had to be shot on either blue screen or green screen. And in order to get the resolution, I believe we shot everything 4K. Which at the time, we knew that would be hard to work with, but then we realized when we were taking 15 or 16 clips, sometimes even more, and trying to rotorbrush all of these and key them out and then actually plop them out in the scene and add depth of field and camera moves. It was a huge project and I noticed with these computers, obviously After Effects didn’t run incredibly smoothly. There were definitely long render times, it definitely wouldn’t have been possible with our old computers. We were at least working to the point where we could view things as we were working. And we could operate After Effects pretty quickly. I was really surprised at how changes with a certain level of ease, whereas I actually don’t know if we’d even be able to view some of that footage with our old computers. So still, obviously the render times did take a while, but just the day to day working and building out these scenes, and having to do all of the leg work, was much easier with these systems.
Christopher: Several artists have said over time that the holy grail of creativity is being able to iterate in real time. To see your work as you work, and not be like okay, now we’re going to render. Let’s go get lunch and come back and see what we’ve got. So I think that’s what you’re pointing to; that you had some facility in that regard.
Tyler: Definitely. And our clients, because we’ve had a great relationship in the past, they’re really responsive to our work but at the same time, they kind of want their revisions pretty quickly. And our timeline, I’m trying to remember what it was. I think we had about a month, but that month was wall to wall and we were having checkpoints with the client probably every three days, sometimes every two days. We also were working on several things simultaneously. We were trying to get a 30 second spot out, as well as a 15. So those had to be worked on pretty much at the same time. And after that first push of getting the TV stuff out, we then had to do an extensive digital campaign. It was all video work, but for Chicago we have the integrated bus ads which are LED panels. So those were all animated with the same footage, same render times; different delivery but it was just as cumbersome as the spots. But to be able to do all of that, like I said, and work quick enough to make the deadlines every couple of days, and get all of that out the door in time was a huge feat and it was, I wouldn’t say easy, but it was much more manageable.
Christopher: Excellent. And Luis, did you work on the Shedd Aquarium piece?
Luis: I didn’t.
Tyler: You did a little bit of the digital stuff. It looked beautiful. Luis is — and was a huge help with some of the digital assets.
Christopher: What’s another recent project that you’re really impressed with or really challenged by? Something that you found really rewarding and that you guys all had big roles on.
Tyler: Well Deadly Rich was a really fun project. Luis, did you work on that one?
Luis: No, I did not work on that one.
Ken: It was all Brad.
Tyler: Yeah, that was more Brad. That was a really healthy balance though of a lot of 2D animation from a few of our artists as well as a ton of CG creation. It was an opening for a show that’s coming out. We’re not allowed to talk specifics about the show but it’s a true crime documentary. So they were looking for us to create the opening as well as the entire show package – intros, in and out of commercials, lower thirds – and that was really fun. For the intro they wanted to take really bold photography of things that represented wealth, like sports cars or yachts, and they wanted to juxtapose that with something that represented murder and violence. So a good example is we took a bird eye’s view of a yacht and we sort of did a really cool, stylized split screen of the yacht with the knife, and we made those images line up in a way that was pretty interesting. But the problem was that at a certain point, when they gave us the green light, we had to either hodge podge a ton of stock imagery together to create those images, or we had to create things completely in CG. And it was really split about 50/50 between those two things. A lot of CG work that was flawless. That one worked really, really well.
CNBC’s Deadly Rich opening
Christopher: Wow, and was the name of the client or the channel that you were supporting?
Tyler: The client is CNBC and the show is just now in its first season.
Ken: Deadly Rich. That was a fun one because they came back and were like, oh yeah, we screwed up and don’t have rights for the stock footage. We have to redo a scene, can you do it overnight, and we did.
Tyler: And really kind of like flawlessly too. It was a 12 hour turnaround; it was pretty remarkable.
Christopher: That is remarkable.
Ken: The original place for that I think, I forget which passes but those things were taking at least six to eight hours per chunk that we were sending off to be rendered. And that was on the new machines, but that certainly would be a project that if the machines were two years older than they are, it would have been a lot longer. Not to mention eight years older; from what we came from.
Tyler: Yeah and like Ken said, that was really a last minute little emergency that came up. Where it was a few of the 3D elements that we had, they wanted to swap out. But you’re right, that would have been devastating feedback if we hadn’t had those machines. We had to make a few slight refinements to the renders, just to speed them up a tiny bit, but we basically played more of a frame range. So it wasn’t like we were taking effects away or anything like that. The quality stayed identical to what we had before. And we were able to, like I said, redeliver. Get them all recomped and reposted in 12 hours. I think they came back one afternoon with that note, and we were able to get it out the next day.
Christopher: Wow, that’s terrific. And Luis, is there a really challenging project that you did, or one that you’re really proud of recently?
Luis: Lately I have been working on a lot of 360 videos. The Bosch project I mentioned took a lot of months, and that one is the most recent that I can talk about.
The Bosch project
Christopher: The Bosch is a good example. Other media professionals and CG artists love seeing what other people are doing and what they’re creating and the toolset that they use and their render engine. Not everyone uses Arnold; some use Octane, some use RedShift, some use V-Ray.
Luis: Most of our projects are with Arnold, and we’ve gotten really comfortable with it. So that’s why we haven’t explored other render engines.
Christopher: Arnold is an outstanding render engine. Because it’s CPU-driven and multithreaded our i-X2 is the best workstation for Arnold, but also RenderMan and V-Ray. That said for speed and photorealism, GPU render engines Octane and Redshift are hard to beat.
I think we can wrap up by just saying a short encapsulation of before and after. Like Luis for you, what difference is your i-X2 making in your workflow, and how does it affect the way you view how you come to a project and what you can and can’t do?
Luis: With these new machines, I feel like we can accomplish a lot more and take bigger jobs. And not be worried about hardware, just focus more on being creative and do our best job and best work that we can do.
Christopher: Yeah, and not worry about crashing; which may have been an issue with those Macs in particular, right?
Luis: Yeah, focus more on the design and less on computers and hardware problems.
Christopher: Amen. Tyler?
Tyler: Yeah. Similar to Luis, a big part of our job is we are trying to figure out the schedule of jobs as we’re going. Dealing with that in real time. With the old machines, we would have to back time or figure out how much time we’d have to set aside for rendering, and a lot of times that was a significant amount of time that was eating away at the time we should be spending. Like Luis said, just kind of playing with the job, getting it designed up and doing the work. So now, we have way more time to do that work. At least for me, I can focus way more on that and I know that rendering is not going to be a huge issue. And in the event that there are emergencies, like the Deadly Rich job. In the worst case scenario, I know that we’re able to tackle feedback in an emergency situation pretty well, and even in those cases, we’re able to do really quick turnarounds and just work much more efficiently.
Christopher: Yeah, that’s great. Ken, did you have one last thing too? I think one of the things that I do hear, especially from effects supervisors or production supervisors that are using our equipment, is about project scope and the kind of projects that they can take on. Maybe you can comment more broadly from an operations perspective. What’s different and so forth?
Ken: One observation I guess as far as dealing with artists in effects, not so much for Luis and Tyler, but just the conversations you tend to have is always that you don’t want to be in a position where someone can claim, well, this doesn’t work because of X. And if X is your hardware, or your pipeline or you know, things like that, they are maybe hesitant to even try, or are resistant to going the next step. Or are really pushing something because they don’t think it’s going to work. So getting rid of that conversation early and upfront is great, and I think these systems definitely did that from when we went in. There really wasn’t too much doubt that this is the best bang for the buck you can get. It was something that would last and work for a while, and even though yeah, products change, chips change, things like that. They’re always being improved, sometimes ridiculously fast in the computer world. It was a very good base of a system to land on that could handle what we need right now, and handle what we think we’re going to do down the road. And you didn’t feel bad having someone work on them because it’s like, oh, this is this machine, and you have to just deal with what it is. So that, I think is maybe unsaid a lot, but it’s like, people know if they have the crappy machine. So whether they like it or not, or they just have to work on it, they know it. So getting rid of that as a possibility and really saying that this is something that’s great, and yeah, it’s not the $100,000 CPU, but you don’t need that for what you do day in and day out. Especially for things like the i-X, where you really can show Adobe doesn’t use 80% of your computer if you overbuild it, and this can handle a ton. So I think it was a great fit for what we found, and it was something that was exactly where it needed to be when we got them.
Christopher: Well that’s great to hear. And on a final note, thank you guys for doing this; really appreciate it. This is a great snapshot into what you guys have been creating, the kind of work you do, and it shows how you guys are supported doing those projects with the hardware that we provide.