SUPERVISING TECHNICAL DIRECTORS
By Noela Hueso
It's no secret that it takes a rather large village to create an animated film. One look at the scrolling end credits of a DreamWorks Animation production such as our latest, "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," reveals the hundreds of professionals responsible for creating stories that are both entertaining and visually arresting.
Vital to the communal nature of animated filmmaking are the Supervising Technical Directors, or Sup TDs. They're the ones who turn on the lights, metaphorically speaking, at the start of production, and they're the folks who turn them out at the end.
In simplest terms, Sup TDs manage all the technology (software and hardware) for a feature film so that the moviemaking process is a seamless and efficient one from start to finish. But they're not just techies. Yes, they're troubleshooters and technical whizzes but, because they work with many different aspects of the production, they're translators and ambassadors between departments as well. They also oversee the Technical Directors (TDs) that are imbedded in almost every department of production from modeling, animation and layout to surfacing and lighting.
At the start of production, "We have a large checklist of things that need to get done before a lot of other people come on board," says Ray Forziati, Sup TD for the upcoming "Rise of the Guardians, in theaters this holiday. "Our job is to essentially turn the key in the ignition of the movie-making engine."
Sup TDs meet with research & development to discuss what new technologies will be needed; work with the VFX supervisor to identify the unique challenges of the film; decide which toolsets to use (DreamWorks Animation builds proprietary digital tools and also incorporates those from third-party programs; configure work areas and file systems for the crew; and set up lines of communication for the different departments. They also figure out TD staffing with the production management.
Based on the often-ambitious directives of the core filmmaking team – directors, producers, production designers and VFX supervisors, to whom Sup TDs report – "we're defining the workflow and the process itself," from one department to the next, Forziati adds.
That means adjusting, as much as possible, to the filmmakers' vision for their project, each of which is unique from the other – whether it's writing code to create digital tools that move a character or landscape in a new and unique way, "which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months depending on the scope of what they're trying to do," says Forziati – or coming up with solutions that are "faster, cheaper and more efficient" while still meeting the filmmakers' expectations. In keeping everyone on the same page, he adds, it also means the ability to speak several languages. "You might come from a meeting with producers who speak 'producer' and then you go to a meeting with animators who speak 'animator.' Then you go to R&D, which is very technical," he says. "You have to be able to translate what each of those groups is saying, making sure that what one said is understandable by the other."
This is especially important considering that the filmmakers at DreamWorks Animation are always pushing the envelope to create artistic work that takes things to the next level.
"We're doing a lot of things in 'Rise of the Guardians' that haven't been done before," Forziati says of the film inspired by the "Guardians of Childhood" children's book series by William Joyce. "The look of the lighting, the effects work, the art-directed sand (on the Sandman), the Night Mares (the horses belonging to the villain Pitch), the way we render all the feathers on our Tooth Fairy character, and the way we're simulating the cloth movement on North (aka Santa Claus). In and of themselves, they aren't that difficult but combined – every department is trying to do new stuff at the same time in every sequence – it makes for quite a workload. The biggest challenge – and biggest creative opportunity – about working on this film is its scale."
Whether the scale is large or small, to do their job effectively, Sup TDs need to have a clear understanding of how an artist works, "how they think and what their end goal is," says "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" Sup TD Shawn Lewis. Despite the technical nature of the job, he adds, it's more than a little helpful for TDs to be creative themselves.
"You can't support a show full of creative people if you aren't creative yourself," agrees Forziati, who has a penchant for composition and color. "In the TD department, we have a lot of photographers, painters and people who are very creative outside of work. They bring that to the table. Every day we come across a technical problem that needs a very creative solution."
Debugging is also a big part of the Sup TD job. Inevitably, something "breaks." Explains Lewis: "When a Lighting TD arrives to work in the morning, for example, the first thing that he or she does is look to see how the renders went overnight and figure out why the ones that are broken are broken."
"Sometimes it's a case of something not working the way we want it to; other times it's a scenario that there's a connection we didn't think about ahead of time," Forziati elaborates. "I often compare our show to an ocean liner. Trying to steer it is so hard. It takes forever and there are so many little pieces to it. It's like replacing the paneling on one of the hallways -- and then realizing the engine broke. So we go back and correct what we didn't perceive. With so many moving parts the thing is bound to have a ripple effect somewhere else in the pipeline.
"A lot of what we do as TDs is trying to get out in front of a problem before it starts," Forziati continues, "or trying to think about the changes that we're going to make and what the impact will be down the road. That's a pretty tough thing to do. There are times you plan for months and then someone makes one quick decision and it's out the door. It's a lot of fun because it keeps you on your toes. TDs are problem solvers at heart."
Lewis, who was inspired years ago to work in computer graphics after first seeing Disney's "Toy Story," agrees.
"I enjoy problem solving," he says. "It's one of the reasons I became an engineer. I also enjoy building things. Pipeline is really about building things. It's about taking different pieces of software and getting them all to work together."
"Each project is different," Lewis adds. "There's always something new to learn. Each department ends up evolving over the course of a movie. Now that 'Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted' is done and I'm moving on to help some of the up and coming shows, I get to learn something completely new."
What's not new are the time constraints that often accompany a technical issue that needs a sup TD's attention.
"Sup TDs are like the engineer Scotty in 'Star Trek,'" says Mark McGuire, who is Head of Production Pipeline (and oversees the studio's Supervising TDs and overall pipeline at DreamWorks). "The VFX Sup will call down and say, "We need to get this done in two hours," and the Sup TD will say, "but it's going to take me two days to do it." Since they only have two hours, they have to figure out how to do it."
In the end, Forziati says that being successful in the job comes down to passion. The job is "slow and hard and takes a lot of attention to detail," he says. "If you're not passionate about it, you're not going to last long. You need to absolutely love it. For me, it's like a hobby I get paid for."