Animation

Today's #CyantistWeLove: 3D Artist And Asset Builder Christina Douk

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The movie and entertainment industry at large has been embracing digital design for some time, and increasingly 3D Printing, with 3D printed props and assets used in movies ranging from Black Panther to First Man. Behind the scene, 3D artists and asset builders such as today’s #CyantistWeLove Christina Douk create 3D modeling, geometry and 3D printing magic to make characters and set designs appear! A past #3DTalk speaker, Christina has recently worked on films including Thor: Rognarok and Captain Marvel. In addition, she has created her own robot toy line and more! We are so excited to feature her, how she works each day, her advice to young Cyantists interested in this field, and of course, her favorite thing to draw! :)

Cyant: It is exciting to see how 3D modeling and 3D printing are being used in movies and are creating new visual effects and experiences. Can you describe how they have been part of your work in recent movies you have worked on?

Christina: Most of the work I do in feature film uses 3d modeling, where we build many assets for films as well as work with client files to optimize them for our production. I work on the 3d visualization side which incorporates: “pitchvis", a production that we do to give the clients an idea of what the film can look like before it is greenlit; “previs", the production where we develop the look and storytelling through set designing and shot creation; “techvis", the process of preparing camera and set information to assist with filming; and “postvis", the process of combining filmed plates with our CG work to give an idea of what the film looks like before sending it to finals visual effects companies.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: French Hallway Environment made for Eve Skylar from her concept - 2014

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: French Hallway Environment made for Eve Skylar from her concept - 2014

I've been a part of all of the processes building assets and more. Although my 3d printing side isn't visible on the screen, I use the knowledge that I've learned with printing in my modeling for production. There are times where I have to clean up and prep models from a client that are very high resolution, 3d scanned actors or environments, or models that contain geometry errors. I use Zbrush a majority of the time to clean up models and prepare them for “retopology” in Maya, so that we can use them in our workflow.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: An environment for the animated short Break Free by Nicole Ridgewell - 2012

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: An environment for the animated short Break Free by Nicole Ridgewell - 2012

Cyant: What is a typical day and what are the creative and technical processes you follow? How do you work with the other team members on the project?

Christina: A majority of the projects we work on are collaborative, so we are constantly working together. Usually we start off with asset builders like me who create the characters, environments or props needed per sequence. This process involves us modeling, texturing, lighting, and rigging every asset. And when we get to a good point, then we introduce shot creation which is where animation comes in to use the assets we make and compose shots to tell the story. When an new asset is requested or something breaks there's usually one asset person on hand to get it done. Depending on what process of production I'm in, my workflow uses Maya or Zbrush for modeling and UVing, then I texture using Substance Painter and bring it all back to Maya to finish up the model and rig and light them if I need to.

 
Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: First projects modeling and texturing for games - 2009 (Christina’s bedroom)

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: First projects modeling and texturing for games - 2009 (Christina’s bedroom)

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: A vehicle from Thailand made using games modeling technique - 2009.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: A vehicle from Thailand made using games modeling technique - 2009.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: Robot fun using Modo - 2010

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: Robot fun using Modo - 2010

Cyant: What did you study and how do you think your studies prepared you? What did you have to learn?

Christina: I went to school for animation originally, but it never really clicked with me to be an animator. Within that process of studying though, I realized that I liked building sets and set dressing a lot more, so I geared my focus to that. I started taking classes that were more focused on game design and modeling and I felt a love for sculpting and building anything. Whenever I saw a beautiful concept I just wanted to build it in 3d because then I could see a design come to life. I kept on this path for many years, working in games first then commercials, toys, and now films all of which my knowledge has grown in each industry. I also take classes on 3d printing, clay sculpting, digital sculpting, drawing and pottery on the side to keep up with many skills and to expand creativity for myself. I never stop wanting to learn, and that continued growth has always fueled my want to keep making, designing and building.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: The Accountant designed by Doktor A and produced by Mold 3d, modeled by Christina.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: The Accountant designed by Doktor A and produced by Mold 3d, modeled by Christina.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: Coal from A Dragon Named Coal by Rachel and Ash Blue

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: Coal from A Dragon Named Coal by Rachel and Ash Blue

Cyant: You are also a creator of 3D printed toys! What inspired you to create these toys, and how is your work different, creatively and practically, from the work you do with movies? What has 3D printing enabled you to do? And what are some important lessons you've learned along the way?

Christina: This was a fun little side thing I love to do. I slowly came to this point where I wanted to do more than what my day job was. Once I found 3d printing and printed my first model and I realized this was a whole new market of creativity for me. I could make anything I wanted and produce it in a physical form. These little robots came out of some simple sketches I was working on for fun and I just kept drawing and modeling them. I’ve always been a fan of robots and these little guys always make me smile when I see them.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: First model made of the robots by Christina and a sketch over done by friend Tu Anh Nguyen to help figure out shapes and forms.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: First model made of the robots by Christina and a sketch over done by friend Tu Anh Nguyen to help figure out shapes and forms.

Making designer toys is a little different because the process involves closing the model up and making it watertight in one solid piece or multiple solid pieces with keys. There is some more planning on how I pose pieces too because I want to try and duplicate them by molding and casting as well. I start off using Maya to get basic shapes in and put together the look, since I am faster in that program, then I use Zbrush to combine all meshes and seal the model and prep it for print. Once the print is done, I let the model cure then break supports, sand it to the right smoothness and either prime it with spray paint or move on to making duplicates.

There were many routes that I wanted to take the toys, like mass production, but instead I wanted to control my own product and so I learned how to mold and cast pieces on my own, allowing me to make however many copies and I get to tint them to whatever color I want. It's a lot of fun producing my own work and I love how they all come out.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: First 3 robots created.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: First 3 robots created.

Cyant: On your Instagram feed, your tag line is: "Manipulating geometry one vertex at a time". As an artist, has working with 3D modeling and 3D printing changed how you use and view geometry and mathematics? How?

Christina: 3d modeling has changed the way I look at the world. I love geometric shapes maybe because of what I do, and I also have worked in this field for several years and noticed that sometimes how I look at the world is a little different. I break down items in our lives into simple geometric shapes and figure out how I can model them. My brain looks and sees repetition in buildings, cars, and products to see how can I optimize the amount of geometry to make that model. Sometimes if I work too much, I see the geometry and edge flow on the real life object, which can be weird, but is how my mind works these days and I find it interesting.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: Casted models of the robot design.

Photo courtesy of Christina Douk: Casted models of the robot design.

Cyant: What advice would you have for young (and not so young) cyantists who want to work with 3D modeling and 3D printing in the entertainment or game industry?

Christina: Just hit play. I really believe that once I started printing my own work I became more and more motivated to keep creating. And I think it's because having the physical product in front of you can show you and influence you that you can make anything. When I first started 3d printing I would model and sculpt many different things in preparation to getting my first printer, but even when I got that, there were so many complications with the ones I had, and there was one printer which didn’t work for me at all, so I ended up waiting another year to get my own. Instead, I ended up sending my stuff to print through a bureau and through friends in the meantime and that's when I realized that I wanted to design and create more. I'm a plug and play type of person. I want to focus more on the art and design vs the process of printing, so once I began making more and more content, I bought a printer to fit that mentality. I own a Form 2 at the moment and literally whenever I have an idea now, I'll model it, send it to print, and share it.

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Cyant: And last but not least! What is your favorite drawing or thing to draw? :)

Christina: My favorite thing is drawing without a purpose. I don’t know what I will draw, but I doodle lines and see what comes out. It is like an icebreaker for myself, to break the need to draw something exact, I instead do whatever. My robots actually emerged from this method. Its freeing to kinda see where the lines go every time I do this.

Thanks so much for sharing your work and inspirations Christina! If you want to learn more about Christina, make sure to visit her website HERE and follow her Instagram account HERE!

Today's #CyantistWeLove: Brian McLean, Director Of Rapid Prototyping At Laika, And The Laika Team

Creativity can manifest itself in many different ways and you can find the connection really unexpectedly.

"If you must blink, do it now... Pay careful attention to everything you see..." urges Kubo, the Hero of Laika's latest Stop Motion Animation feature film: Kubo And The Two Strings. And if you follow his advice, not only will you be transported into his enchanting journey and story, but you will also be left with wonderment at the creative and technical works that supported this beautiful animation.

Source: LAIKA Animation You Tube Channel on 2016-10-05.

Laika is a pioneer in using 3D printing in Stop Motion Animation, and their approach has enabled a brand new appreciation for this form of animation. We were so fortunate and grateful to have a conversation with the force driving this artistic and technical evolution, Brian McLean, Director Rapid Prototyping at Laika, who received a Scientific And Engineering Award (Academy Plaque) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work. Brian works everyday at the intersection of art and technology, but always letting the creative side drive the technical side, and making sure everything is rooted in the practical. We are excited to share a summary of the Q&A we had with him:

Cyant: As a "traditional artist", what brought you to 3D Printing and how did you introduce the connection between 3D Printing and animation?

Brian: From a young age, I was very drawn to arts and sculpting. When I got out of college I actually did not know how to write an email. I had worked on traditional model making and sculpting, and computers felt very intimidating, just like 3D Printing can be intimidating today. And I rebelled against it, I wanted nothing to do with the computer. I focused on traditional model making, and was introduced to people who'd made a name for themselves doing practical things. And that was at a time where most of the studios were moving to digital. My wife enrolled into an industrial design degree, and as I helped her learn some of the required digital tools, I became more comfortable with the technology. Fast forward two years, I was teaching a class on traditional model making and I was exposed to a 3D printer. Thanks to Yves Behar's leadership, The California College Of The Arts was investing into Polyjet technology, which could offer fine details and dimensional accuracy. I was put in charge of researching and buying the 3D printing equipment, teaching it and bringing it to the curriculum for the industrial design and architecture students. Because of the exposure to that very type of 3D printing technology, I called an old colleague, Martin Meunier, to take a look and give his thoughts. We started to ask: "Could it be possible to do stop motion animation?" with this technology, which could yield objects almost as smooth as you could expect from mold and cast. We submitted the idea to Laika and they accepted it. If we had known how hard it was going to be we may never have done it! But we were naive and eager, and very focused on the practical, physical objects we could hold in our hands, which were beautiful. And it quickly grew and grew from there.

Photo source:  Laika

Photo source: Laika

Cyant: Your department unites arts and technology and is a true “Cyantists” department! Could you please describe how you assembled your team, and how this diversity has been working well to produce a film like Kubo And The Two Strings?

Brian:  Throughout most of Coraline, what made it successful is that the people we brought in had practical, art backgrounds, they were not "computer people". Coraline was the first stop motion film shot in US in over a decade. But the fact that we were coming with a practical background helped showcase to the community that this could help the field, not hurt it. So we were hiring people with practical skills and teaching them technical skills. For follow on films, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo And The Two Strings, which were getting more complex, we had to bring in people with more computer skills and teach them the practical side of things. It turns out it was difficult to do in this way around: they were computer geniuses but were missing the practical and physical experience on how objects fit together. So the balance has been hard to achieve. However, we have definitely found over the years a whole group of people who were mostly working in the physical domain to start with, but had transitioned to digital over time. And it's those people who have that passion for the practical who really make it work.

Photo source:  Laika

Photo source: Laika

Cyant: So for Kubo, what had to be created to make this movie so visually and artistically stunning, and elegantly showcase the beautiful storyline, while seamlessly blending several technical elements including Computer Generated effects?

Brian: Starting Paranorman, Laika started doing "hybrid film making", that is we were focused on the story to be told, and creating the world we needed to create to do that, without letting ourselves be limited by the media of stop motion animation. We always try to have everything we do rooted in the practical. So we try to figure out how to do things in the real world first and then determine if it needs to be transitioned to CG. For example, Oliver Jones and the team at the rigging department had to prototype crashing waves with a black plastic bag on an undulating grid and filming it frame by frame, or taking chunks of cut out paper also on undulating grid system, and animate it frame by frame. Then once we'd figured out what that needed to look like, we transitioned it to Steve Emerson at the visual effects department, so they could recreate the effect and rebuild the scene while keeping it rooted in our original world because that CG effect was going to have to live side-by-side with it. It is the attention and dedication to that process that has allowed us to make it invisible to the audience members. And throughout our process, it is amazing how often the creative side drives the technology use.

3D Printing is on the cusp of allowing everything the human race has ever designed to be redesigned.

Cyant: What has 3D Printing specifically enabled and what envelop did you push to make each movie and Kubo And The Two Strings in particular?

Brian: With Coraline, we were using Polyjet technology with hand painting. We moved to ZPrint technology for Paranorman, and were able to print faces in color. And with this shift, we had to develop a number of post processing techniques and make sure we were achieving the necessary consistency. One of the limitations of ZPrint technology is its dimensional accuracy and fine feature details. For Kubo, we had to produce really detailed characters, and the technology that had been the backbone of the two previous films was no longer going to be sufficient. So we were able to leverage the reputation that Laika had acquired, and work with the 3D Printing company Stratasys to obtain one of their early technologies, the Connex3. This technology allows 3 color 3D printing but does not make it possible to print gradients. We worked in partnership with them to co-develop our own software and texture mapped color assignment, and we worked very closely Jon Hiller, independent software developer, to take his AMF software and tweak it for our production needs. Still again, the creative and physical requirements of how the characters should look were driving the final decision making. Thankfully our technical strategy paid off and the 3D printed faces, Monkey in particular, were approved. So what had held Stop Motion Animation back and we were able to solve with our technology development over time, is keeping the audience fully engrossed in the movie and characters, and maintaining the emotional connection, through fine details and facial expressions. This was something that Computer Generated Animation had addressed because it could bring that additional resemblance to real life. But we were able to solve this with 3D printing because we could obtain a dynamic range of subtle and precise facial expressions. To put this in perspective, traditionally, there are several techniques for Stop Motion Animation: claymation which can be messy, and with which the work is more visible; mechanical animation, which uses silicon skin that is pushed around as need be, but is not the best technique for broad expressions and changes; replacement animation, which uses hand sculpted expressions, but is ultimately not good for subtlety because of the variations between each sculpt. So 3D printing has allowed us to obtain the same type of subtlety that can be expected with Computer Animation, and combine it with replacement animation to enable greater expressiveness.

Photo source:  Laika

Photo source: Laika

Cyant: What words of advice do you have for parents, and young Cyantists, who are inspired by your work and might one day want to work at the intersection of 3D printing and stop motion animation / storytelling? Are there skills they need to acquire? How can they cultivate their creativity?

Brian: I can speak as someone who from an early age on, was drawn to the arts. Creativity can manifest itself in many different ways and you can find the connection really unexpectedly. Being able to encourage kids to be creative and artistic and allowing them to explore fields that may not seem like opening a career, is hard to do, but I think it’s necessary. Looking back at my journey, if I had not had the support from my family I may have had to choose another career. Arts and creativity are so important in our culture and our communities, and it is important for parents to find ways through which kids can feel supported in those fields. And as kids grow as students, there may be zigzags, and exposure to different people and different techniques, but it is part of the journey and learning who you need to be. The more tools they will have under their tool belts, the more they will be able to solve problems. And twenty years ago, the drive to find that art-meets-tech connection was not obvious: you were either art or tech. But there was never this idea that they could come together. Thanks to recent technology changes, such as smart phones, app development, building things really quickly in software or with 3D printing, the art-meets-tech connection has been brought back to the forefront. And we benefit from that everyday, that is a perfect blend of artists, technicians and computer geniuses that come together to solve a common problem.

Again we are grateful to Brian McLean for this Q&A, and Laika Publicist, Maggie Begley, for permission to use the images shown in this post. We leave you with a featurette that recounts the crafting of Kubo's magical journey, under the vision of Travis Knight, Laika's CEO.

Source: Laika YouTube channel. Hear from some of the filmmakers and voice talent as they discuss what went into designing and creating the world of Kubo.