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Discovering Ardi : Delivered outside the Box

It’s a year since I worked on Discovering Ardi for the Discovery channel, and wanted to recap some of that experience today, as I received email from the film-maker (Rod Paul of Primary Pictures) who made the documentary saying that it has gotten great reviews and the website has had tens of millions of hits since it aired at the end of the summer in 2009.

The main thrust again of what I’m writing is that I delivered this project not by driving into Denver daily (which would have greatly impacted my productivity) but did much of the work here from my studio in Longmont, as my wife was about to give birth to our second son Asher, which occurred right in the middle of one of the most intense schedules I’ve had in many years.

Discovering Ardi Clips:

Last year I received a phone call from Impossible Pictures in Denver, one of the main television graphics houses here in Colorado to help them out delivering a project that had been on their plate and running into some problems.  When I arrived I found a pipeline that was stalled, not enough computer power, software problems and was asked to deliver the project in six weeks.

At this point the show had been worked on for over a year, and for various reasons the end was still a long way off.

There was a great deal to do, and I had to do this while assembling a team, fixing the pipeline and finding the necessary render power necessary to deliver the job quickly and efficiently all the while doing this with making minimal trips to Denver.

To start off I hired several of my ex-students, among the best of the crop from the Art Institute of Colorado including Jacqueline Evans, Russell Adkisson and Toby Cochran. We not only had to worry about shots for the show, but promotional shots which hadn’t even been boarded or animated yet.

The pipeline had a lot of things to overcome.   Vue software, which is great for creating environments does not cooperate super-well with Maya, which was central to our production.   On top of that we were using Joe Alter’s Shave and Haircut software for the hair on Ardipithecus, and that gave us another level of complexity in terms of how we should generate mattes for creature and fur, to assemble her into the environment that was generated in Vue.

The main thing to overcome was that no one knew Vue, and there was (and may still be) little documentation on Vue and no video training. In the meantime my producer and I decided that the render engine we were renting was far from enough to deliver the show so I began to look for other solutions.

For rendering we used two main companies, Render Rocket and Render Titan.  Both of these services were great but not necessarily in the same way.  Render Rocket I can log into any time 24 hours a day and launch and download renders.  This makes it like a true extension of my studio giving me hundreds of processors to rely on and sometimes getting complex and heavy animations back in minutes.    Render Titan filled in some gaps that Render Rocket couldn’t accommodate in the short time frame we were working on.    We needed to render Vue and Shave and Haircut as plugins to Maya.   To add to our difficulties all Vue renders needed to go to Render Titan who had a 3pm deadline for submission and at the time required us to wait for the technical people there compiled data for our downloads.   We also couldn’t queue up renders on weekends. The upside of this non-automated process was that they technicians there checked the work, and often found problems and solved them if they would not run correctly on the farm and they got Vue renders working on their farm which made delivering the show feasible.

Using After Effects we compiled renders together , only once making the mistake of having Vue break out a scene into groups of plants and trees for us to reassemble.  The madness that Jackie was faced with in compositing this one scene in particular was massive and the After Effects composite was slow and painful, but since time was tight we needed to press on and use tricks, rotos and patience to bring it all together.  Almost all shots came through my home studio for final compositing and I did much of the setup and fully delivered more than half the shots from my small studio, relying on my experience to work quickly.

In the end we delivered all the shots for Discovery Channel, and the show went on to air at the end of the summer.   The work was grueling, my son was born in the midst of the show and I went between walking my newborn son to sleep, and then working through the night in my studio downstairs always.  At six a.m. you might find me in my studio napping on the couch, with my infant son on my chest having gotten very little sleep.

It was a complex project, delivered on a tight deadline and directed from  my studio in Longmont under stressful conditions, but the reason we all did it was because we wanted to be part of something big, and show that we in Colorado are capable in producing Visual Effects, not just our talented counter-parts on the west coast.

Personally I wanted this challenged to show that working from a home studio was not a crutch, but actually served the job in that I could transition between home and work, without a commute, or waiting until the next day to put in a few more hours when my family needed me at 6pm.   By 8pm I was back in my studio and worked until early in the morning.

In terms of communicating with my team, there were some other hurdles I was hoping to streamline better but time was too tight.  We did use Skype to stay in constant contact and to exchange images and quicktimes.   I could log in remotely and take control of scenes when needed as well, working in Maya or Vue remotely as if I were in the room. The one area that didn’t work as planned was to make a virtual hard drive for us to share data quickly, Live.Drive did not quite live up to my expectation of what a remote drive should be at the time, and I’m still waiting for the internet speeds to be high enough that we can instantly exchange many gigabytes of data instantly.

I know that time is not far off, and that a virtual team working on games, films and televisions will be more common, and I’m hoping to not just be a part of the first wave if not running more teams of talented artists from anywhere from my home studio.

In the end I am grateful to Toby, Jackie, Russell and our producer Spice Jones for hanging in there with an imperfect pipeline on a tight schedule.  I’m also grateful to Joel Pilger at Impossible Pictures for believing in me when I told them I would deliver this from Longmont  as well as Rod and David Paul, from Primary Pictures who also believed after many hurdles that I would bring his home.

Along the way, when my team faltered I tried to remind us all that this was our chance to make Colorado proud and to be part of an important discovery.

As usual I would quote one of my favorite films, The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, “What one man can do another can do!” I would say, and growling in my best Anthony Hopkins impression I’d add, Kill the bear!”

My students who know me, know that this is my battle cry to make things happen, reach deep and believe in our ability to get things done.

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Daev Finn is an artist, illustrator, writer, visual effects artist, and video game developer, whose work can best be seen as Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Visual Effects.

Daev lives in Colorado with his two sons Everest and Asher, and his wife Sheryl Paul, author of The Conscious Bride, and The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner.

1 comment to Discovering Ardi : Delivered outside the Box

  • Cliff Schonewill

    Hello Daev! You’ve worked hard and pulled it off, you should be quite proud. It is not easy dealing with the sorts of things you have, and I applaud you. Its been a long time, I hope everything is well with you and congratulations to you and your wife on your brand new baby! I’m happy to discover this blog and will keep an eye on it. Take great care, Daev!

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