Image: Robert Wheatley
[Robert Wheatley | Lifestyle Editor]
The University of Hertfordshire was one of the highest ranking universities in the world for its Visual Effects (VFX) course in 2015, and is still one of the highest rated courses in the UK. The students on the course have worked with many high profile companies and organisations including the BBC’s 2010 Olympics presentation and The Mill.
Trident Media spoke to Jamie McComb, a third year VFX student about his experience studying at the University of Hertfordshire. We asked him about his inspiration to work in the VFX industry, his work experience within the independent games company, Archetype Studios, as well as his advice for upcoming VFX students.
What inspired you to pursue a career in VFX?
“When I was in school I wanted to be behind the camera – I wanted to pursue a directorial role, but couldn’t afford a camera, so I started playing with Adobe After Effects after school… when school finished I could either do A-levels or go and do a B-Tech, so I did that – I could have gotten into the university with my A-levels but wouldn’t have had the knowledge of software that the B-Tech gave me.
“After the course was finished I applied to maybe five universities, over here, including a couple of web designs ones for backup – with a view to get into the top two, which was this one and Bournemouth. I got conditional offers for all of those, the conditions being an interview. I did get the grade and had to fly over several times for interviews, which was hideously expensive, but I passed all of those.
“So the choice was Bournemouth or Hertfordshire – I think Bournemouth puts people into the world of the industry but more technical directors, and Hertfordshire is producing technical artists which is the route I wanted to go down. [Hertfordshire] was the offer I accepted with not too much liberation, and that’s what led me to where I am now.”
Why did you choose to study in England?
“Northern Ireland has a growing film industry, and it’s only starting to blossom now. It’s getting good especially after Game of Thrones as a lot of that was filmed there… but at the time, which was four years ago when I was applying for universities, there weren’t any courses. Now there’s a course with someone who worked on Avatar, so there’s a great course there now. But to give myself the best chance, I did take a bit of a risk, and it would’ve been easier to go into web design as it’s a more steady industry, but I went for Hertfordshire instead.”
What particular form of VFX are you pursuing in your course?
“On our course there’s a lot of specialists, and 70 per cent of people would specialise on compositing, which is sticking non real stuff into live-action real stuff, or modelling or animating; there’s a heap of roles the breadth of which is enormous, but I’m doing work for games at the minute – I’m trying to be a jack of all trades.
“I’d like to work for games companies, but I think when I fledge and actually get a career I’d like to work for a couple of years on big films, and the big companies in London; Double Negative and Framestore… a technical artist; I want to be a technical artist. I want to composite, I want to rig, I want to model, I want to texture – I want to make things that will look good on screen.”
What is the best thing about your course?
“Our lecturers have all been in the industry; they are incredible, and all of them are super dedicated to making us the best artists that they can carve out of us. It’s a confusing course and there’s a lot of confusion but as far as how well organised it is, I wouldn’t want to be the coordinator. The syllabus is incredible: I can’t imagine any other course in the world to teach it in any better way. The software we have access to no other course in the UK has – we’re already using 2016 software, and versions of the software the industry doesn’t even have yet. We couldn’t really ask for much more – even with room for improvement it’s by far the best course in the UK.”
You’re doing voluntary work for a game’s company: How did you get this work?
“I have, in the past, played a lot of video games and it’s one of the things that got me into this industry, and one of the video games I played a lot of was Tribes – I made a lot of acquaintances, some of which happened to be games artists. When Tribes faded away it left a hole in the industry where there wasn’t this specific type of game. These guys [Archetype] grouped together and they want to make another Tribes-like game, and they’re calling it Midair.
Image: Archetype Studios
“It’s pre-alpha still but I only joined recently, maybe 4-5 months ago. I’m modelling for them, texturing for them, generally sharing my skillset doing bits and pieces for them; testing the game and stuff. It looks really good and it’s shaping up to be a good game, and good experience for me; I can say I’ve worked for a professional games company who are actually incredibly professional about the work they do. Even if I did get a job I’d want to keep working with them – I feel privileged to be a part of it.”
Is there a specific company you’d like to work for? Or is there a particular career path you want to follow?
“I’d like to do five-six years in feature films, because people burn out in that environment – it’s a lot of unpaid overtime. I’d like to be part of it because the art they make is stellar, and I want to work for the films I grew up loving – Star Wars, Jurassic Park. When I’m a little older and got that out of my system, I’d like to work for something more stable.
“I could work in architecture visualisation… that’s one of the boons of the industry: the skillset has such a breadth there’s so many things that this course has taught me to do that I could branch out – I’ve got coding knowledge, can animate some, modelling which could be used for product design; there’s a lot of things I could do.”
What’s your current position at Archetype?
“I am an artist – an art monkey. They have a hierarchy of roles; they have a coding lead, an art lead, an animation lead, and my art lead is a guy called Santeri – he’s a guy from Finland and he and his team decides what the game is gonna look like, what the timeline is for creating various assets like models and maps and things – he delegates work to his various subordinates. Today I could be working on a turret for the game, tomorrow a deployable inventory station – as soon as I finish it I send it to Paul, the animator; Paul sends it to Mabel the coder, Mabel sends it to whoever’s next in the pipeline and eventually you have a working game.”
Is there something you like to create in particular?
“Even within modelling there’s a lot of paths you can go down; if a bigger company hires a modeller they tend to hire a specialist, and they’ll hire a hard-surface modeller and an organic modeller for animals and things; one can do the other, but one is better at their craft. I like hard-surface stuff as I like cars and things. For organic objects you kind of sculpt like using clay, whereas with hard-surfaces you’re moving little dots in a 3D space and then shading them. I do like making more static things, and making machinery, but in general I like to do anything.”
Image: Jamie McComb
Is there something about VFX you find compelling?
“I love the way films bring you into a world and engage you, and for the duration of the film you’re there, you’re experiencing a narrative through to the end. If you don’t feel like you’re there the film quickly becomes something that you don’t want to be watching. Her is a film I watched a few nights ago; a Spike Jones film. It’s brilliant, and the narrative is incredible, but with the set pieces most people wouldn’t think so but there’s a huge amount of visual effects in there; set replacements, matte paintings, design of objects digitally placed in the world – if that stuff looked bad, it wouldn’t be the film it currently is. I love films, and I want to be part of making them – and making things explode is good.”
How long does it take to complete a project?
“Every assignment is different, and the breadth of things we do on this course is kind of ridiculous, and even people who do specialise as you tend to in your second and third year – the course teaches them what people in the pipeline will be doing and it’s super helpful to know that, and to be able to step in and help with that is very important.
“I’m rigging, which is when you have a character built and modelled by a guy sculpting. You kind of have to build a digital skeleton; you create bones, and you create control objects that make the arms move. Your life is to make the animator’s life as easy as possible, and it’s way too much math to be having fun with but I enjoy doing it anyway. I think it took two weeks, which is pushing the deadline, but that’s what I got done. I haven’t finished that as I still need to skin it, which means taking the bones you’ve made, combine it with the mesh model; so I’d say three weeks for that.
“One of the things with this industry is that these deadlines are super tight and you kind of just have to bite your lip and do it, because you don’t have a great deal of choice. If he asks something ridiculous of you, he’s been where you are and knows your potential and knows what you’re capable of, so then he’ll push you to the limit of what’s humane to get the project finished.”
Have you ever had a project that’s pushed you to the limit? “Couple times. In first year before I was incapable of managing my time properly, every project was that – I was up till 6.00am every night doing things. On my portfolio there’s a model of a plane and there’s much more to that airplane than it looks like; inside there’s dials, there’s leather and little pieces that took so long, and on the finished piece you can’t see any of it. That took a lot more time than it should have – six months, I think. I was working on other things at the same time, but most of it was working on that.
Image: Jamie McComb
“I had to make clouds for it, which is mostly particle work, but I liked that too, working with clouds and smoke; and matte paintings for skies, which is very dynamic… but if you don’t put a lot of effort into something it just doesn’t look good; it makes VFX as a whole look bad. I think people would be surprised by just how much VFX there actually is in some films, and what is real and what isn’t, regarding backgrounds.”
“There’s a thing I read the other day – do you know what animatronics are? They’re these kind of mechanical creatures with rubber over them, and hair and things; these pictures of them cropped up online and people thought they were computer graphics and people were like ‘this is terrible!’, ‘you can’t have CG characters in films!’ but they were real; the gap is closing so much people think they’re real.
“It’s very difficult to animate something to look real – it’s like in the back of your mind; you can feel there’s something not quite right about it. You can’t put your finger on it but you know there’s something not quite right… With hard-surfaced objects you can blag it a bit, but you need to pour so much resources into making a CGI character that it’s almost not worth it, but it can be done actually. I don’t know if you saw Gravity, but something like 99 per cent of the pixels on the screen are CG – even shots where George Clooney and Sandra Bullock’s faces are CG and the visor – everything was CG but their faces for the most part.”
What advice would you give to someone about to start VFX?
“Straight away, learn to manage your time. Probably any course will tell you that but it’s very important for VFX. If you can’t do it you’ll probably never sleep again; you’ll be drinking coffee intravenously. It’s bad for your health and it could deteriorate if you can’t manage your time properly. If you’re good at art, you can go down that path; if you’re good at coding you can do that path; personally I’m doing the halfway point and that’s possible too. There’s so many options if you want to work in film or CG for games, and no matter what your skill set is you can probably get a decent creative job – not that you can always get one but the option is there. But you do need to be interested in the state the industry is in – it’s not the healthiest. I have good and bad stories from alumni now working in London, but I would recommend it – I do like doing it.” Interested in Jamie’s work? Check out his fantastic profile at: jamiemccomb.co.uk