« Impressions about RenderMan for Maya | Main | A Hero »

November 23, 2005

Interview with Aron Hjartarson

Aron Hjartarson, Head of 3D, The Mill New York.

The Head of 3D of The Mill's New York division talks about today's challenges in the commercials market, the cg industry and his career.
November, 22nd, 2005, by Raffael Dickreuter

How did you get started in the CG industry and what kind of education do you have?

I sort of got into the industry by accident. A few friends of mine at a company called OZ purchased an ancient 3D program from AT&T called Topaz and set it up at their office. I came by one day and got to play around with it and even if it was quite rudimentary, after doing my first revolved surface, I was hooked. I just thought that now anything was possible. There weren't any computer graphics programs at colleges available at the time in Iceland, so we had to figure out a lot on our own. This was also before the internet and e-mail, so most of our research took place by fax in the early years. I remember learning about raytracing via fax correspondence with Alias Research. We upgraded to Alias PowerAnimator from Topaz, running on IBM RS/6000 machines, which was quite a step up. My first "real" 3D workstation was a 33 Mhz IBM, with graphics acceleration. That meant you could orbit around a wireframe sphere without too much lag.
The toolset we had to work with was somewhat limited, so we had to write a lot of our own tools. We wrote the first digital compositing software in Iceland using a PC, a Truvision graphics card and a Diaquest tape controller. So every frame for every layer had to be got from tape, stored on disk, composited and laid to tape again because we didn't have enough disk space to store a lot of data. We wore down videoheads at our facility quite quickly. It all got a lot easier when we purchased our first 1 Gb hard drive. It was 4 times bigger than our biggest drive, and we thought we'd never fill that thing up. It was physically huge and it made a lot of noise too, like an idling Harley Davidson in the middle of our office.
One of the coolest things we did was a facial tracking system in 1992, that tracked position of points on a face from a video sequence. We managed to get 50 hz info from our PAL cameras by de-interlacing our footage and making sure our shutter speed was high enough to get crisp frames. A lot of the high frequency nuances were lost, but it got the job done. Then of course we met up with Softimage at some convention and out of that came the collaboration with mental ray - soft had just started shipping mental ray and needed a shader library to ship with it.
We wrote the original shader library that shipped with SOFTIMAGE|3D, and I think some of the code survives to this very day in XSI.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I read a lot. I enjoy a good book and go through phases of interest.
Politics, philosophy and international affairs have consumed me for the most part of this century, for whatever reason. I also like playing guitar and sailing which I do enjoy a lot but never get to do as often as I'd like. I guess picking up the guitar is a lot easier than driving to the marina and casting off.

What moment in your life was influental to let you pursue a career in the CG industry?

There are quite a few moments I remember, most of them related to some cinematic trickery that really impressed me. Ray Harryhausen was definately an inspiration - when I was about 6 years old, they had matinees at a tiny theatre next to my house, the 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the argonauts played every Sunday. I must have seen each a hundred times, and they scared the living daylights out of me every time.
The earliest I really gave computer graphics any thought was when I was about 13 years old and was playing with a graphics program on my Amstrad. I went to see Ghostbusters at the cinema, and remember as I was coming home that a thought struck me - that the effects could perhaps be done in the computer. Then I thought further down the line and tried to imagine the complexities in calculating light and object interaction (I was thinking volumes at the time, not polygonal surfaces) and quickly came to the conclusion that it was impossible. Then of course came Young Sherlock Holmes, which was just amazing, and of course the Last Starfighter which I came away from scratching my head and thinking "how'd they do that?" Then the Abyss, which was just sheer magic. I didn't want to leave the cinema.

What do you consider some of the highlights of your career so far?

The best thing about my job so far is that it has given me a lot of freedom. I've been able to travel quite a lot, live in different places and experience different cultures. CG knowledge is a good passport.

What kind of work did you do before you joined The Mill NY?

I've done a variety of different jobs within the CG world, ranging from software design, R&D to production. I've done quite a bit of freelancing throughout my career, which is a great way to learn. All companies have different strengths and structure their pipelines in a different way, so studying the insides of a company while on a job provides good insights into what works, what doesn't and why.

Tell us a bit about what an average project The Mill gets involved looks like, how much time you have to complete the shots and how many people usually work on a show.

It is hard to define the average CG project at The Mill, apart from the fact they usually require computer generated imagery produced in less than the time required to get them done. Seriously though, the team sizes vary a lot from job to job. What we have done to adapt ourselves to our market is to build a component based pipeline, chopping projects up into small chunks that are easy to distribute between various resources. This makes us more flexible and makes it easier to deal with the demands of the advertising industry which at times can be a bit extreme.

How early on does The Mill get involved in a project and to what extent do you guys also provide on set supervision?

One of the keys to The Mill's success has undoubtedly been to make ourselves available at the early stages of development of a project.
This way we can help influence the direction a project will take, perhaps offer up a different perspective on how to approach unusual challenges and make sure everything runs smoothly further down the pipeline. I put great emphasis on data collection on set, so I usually come back with a few gigs of data from a shoot that helps me reconstruct everything once I'm back at the office.
The flip side of that is that sometimes we get involved at a later stage, when everything has been shot and we just get the tk'd footage.
That can sometimes be a hassle and involves a lot of guesswork, especially if there is a lot of matchmoving involved.

Are there any plans that The Mill will get involved again in the film business like back then with MillFilm?

There is no official policy as of yet to get back into film, and currently we are finding great success concentrating on our core business, the advertising industry. However, the film industry does provide a different set of challenges to commercials and we have always welcomed challenges.

Clients want better quality for less money and getting it done faster and faster. What's your way to guide your teams to keep up with the neverending new challenges and pressuring deadlines?

We try to improve our pipeline constantly, not just from a hardware / software point of view, but also by expanding the skillset of our core team by fostering knowledge and information sharing between team members.

If you compare the work being done in the London office to the New York office do you see any major differences in terms that London and New York face very different challenges or is it quite the same both in terms of cg work as well as industry related issues?

The US market is very different from the European one for a variety of reasons. The most obvious difference that comes to mind is the creative lead. In Europe, the director is usually involved from the start to finish, whereas in the States a director's involvement usually goes from pre-production until the last shoot day, passing on the creative lead to the agency, editor and ourselves. This often makes for a very interesting chain of command and fuzzy boundaries at times, but when the dynamic between the different parties is right, it leads to great results. I would say that the European market is also more subject to time constraints. I'm not sure as to why that is, but would hazard a guess that perhaps smaller local European consumer markets lack the inertia of the US one and require companies to turn campaigns around quicker.

What role plays XSI in the pipeline of The Mill?

The New York office relies heavily on XSI and mental ray. We will usually funnel output from external applications into that pipeline, unless there is a specific reason we have to do the job in another package.

Which features do you find very useful?

The tight integration of most components is a personal favourite. You can get things done really quickly.

Which areas should be improved?

Stability and rendering. There are a lot of features that XSI can adapt from a typical Renderman workflow like rib archiving for example. Using clever include methods of any flavour is important, too much time is "Lost in Translation".

What special skills or character traits are you looking for when hiring a new artist, besides just being talented?

Being a decent person is very important. I think basic social skills are a definite plus, the work we do is intense and requires everybody on the team to work closely together. It's important that you work with people you can get along with. I also look for innate talent, people that have an eye. If you know how to see, the rest is just a matter of building your skillset through training.

What do you think about the current state of the commercials CG industry in New York?

I think the current state of affairs is good and getting better. It was rare to see VFX work done here 3 years ago, only a handful of companies were fighting the good fight on the East Coast. The market is going through a lot of changes and we are at the right place at the right time. Our volume of work has grown and we are seeing increasingly ambitious projects land on our desks.

In the film industry the trend towards "we will fix it in post" often means uncessary work for production houses. To what extent do you see this also true for the commercials industry?

I think the perception of production actually being careless is a bit inflated and perhaps stems from the fact a lot of people that work in post do not frequent shoots. There is a lot of pressure on the crew to do a lot in very little time. Decisions are made very quickly, so it is good to be well prepared and know exactly what you need to get and how.
I can honestly say that I have never been on a shoot where everyone involved wasn't ready to do what they possibly could to make sure we would get what we need. Within reasonable limits of course, but in the end everyone wants to deliver a great looking project. On the rare occasions we get jobs in that do not have what we need, it is usually because we didn't have somebody there on the day and the director delivered what he thought was appropriate.

Related Links
The Mill

Posted by administrator at November 23, 2005 07:21 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Interview with Aron Hjartarson:

» best online casinos from best online casinos
best online casinos [Read More]

Tracked on December 29, 2005 05:53 AM

» Life Insurance from Life Insurance
Life Insurance :: Life Insurance is a niceblog. [Read More]

Tracked on March 11, 2006 08:08 PM

» Dental Insurance from Dental Insurance
Dental Insurance [Read More]

Tracked on March 22, 2006 03:05 AM


Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?