An Interview with Kirk Dunne [AgentSmith]

Sergio Rosa Interviews Kirk Dunne [AgentSmith]

Longtime Renderosity member, and former Bryce Moderator, Kirk Dunne (better known here as AgentSmith), recently sat down with Sergio Rosa to answer some questions on his recent work in film and how he got his start in 3D. As a 3D data and asset tracker on motion capture film productions for Robert Zemeckis' Image Movers Digital located in Los Angeles, he shares his experiences working on "Avatar" and "A Christmas Carol," and what it takes to get started in the industry.


For those who don’t know you, could you share your background with us? How did you get involved with computer graphics?

It began around 1997. I was writing some screenplays at the time and I was on the hunt for an easy software solution for my producer to join in on creating storyboards alongside me. It just so happened that one of the possible results that popped up was Poser 3 by MetaCreations. Storyboards aside, Poser planted that 3D bug in me that slowly secured it's claws over the next few years and I started to browse more for online 3D images made by at-home users.

Eventually, while searching for more CG renders, I happily tripped over Renderosity. At the time, the great thing for me about Renderosity was the variety of all the various programs that were being used and discussed. It gave me more insight on what to try next. I was still using Poser, yet I was wanting to add upon that and further what I was doing and learning. The last straw, so to speak, was discovering hobbit's and Beton's artwork here, and after pouring over their galleries I learned they used Bryce to create their renders. Bryce ended up fitting me perfectly then, and although I now also use many other more expensive programs, I still utilize Bryce even to this day.

When it comes to computer graphics, what drives you and what inspires you?

Definitely by looking at all the artwork everyone else is doing, it actually inspires me to a fault. I go off on these tangents by browsing all the various types of renders and getting all these offshoot ideas to try on my own. Sometimes it may just be seeing, say, an underwater scene and saying "hey, I haven't tried this yet, I gotta go do that!" Or, it may even be someone's radical color scheme that makes me want to attempt to inject more color into what I do. I also get inspired to incorporate technical ways to simulate abilities of higher-end apps that my Bryce didn't have at the time. So, for example, by 2002 I was faking HDRI lighting, and stuff like that. In the end, it's always the artwork that everyone else is doing that fuels me to keep stretching myself artistically. That and a pair of headphones full of movie soundtracks.

Bryce Billiards by AgentSmith
Bryce Billiards (Hi-Res) by AgentSmith

You mentioned you were hunting for storyboard solutions for screenplays you were writing. We didn't get to know if you turned any of those into a movie, though. Do you see or hope this to be the start of your very own filmmaking career? Could you briefly pitch one of your stories to us?

I've written four screenplays, and unfortunately while they have not been purchased and made into movies, when I was writing them I did purposefully create smaller versions of two of the screenplays. That way, yes, I will take those and eventually just direct them myself as film shorts. At the time of writing them (mid 1990's), if your independent film-making budget was very small, your picture quality would have to suffer. On micro budgets of less than $25,000 you had to settle for video, usually high 8mm, and part of your budget might have to be put aside for converting the finished video over to film, which was very costly.

Nowadays, the game has completely changed. With DSLR's costing around $5,000, you can have a camera that will record full 1080HD video, whose cinematic quality will start to rival most of what you have seen inside of a theater. In fact, LucasFilm is on the edge of starting to use these DSLR's for some of their future projects. So today, I could use that same budget and have an industry standard image quality. And with the advent of digital projectors, I also wouldn't need to pay to convert the video to film and I could use more of the budget for post-production. One of my screenplays in particular calls for some 2D/3D VFX work, which fortunately now, I can do myself at home. So again, yes, I am looking at directing one of those two film shorts within the next few years. As far as my stories go, I will need to continue to keep even the basics of those plots close to my vest, as they contain elements that I haven't really seen used anywhere else and, well, I like surprises, don't you?

Avatar
Image courtesy of the Official Avatar Movie Flickr page
© All rights reserved

A few years ago I heard you were pursuing a career in Visual Effects, and that you were going to work on Avatar. That was especially amazing news because I’ve been waiting for that movie for around 4 years. How did you get a job on such a big production?

I get that question the most. It boiled down to luck, who I happened to know, hard work during very long hours, and what has truly helped me keep getting promoted, was my knowledge of 3D I had taught myself all those years. It went down like this: I didn't know it but I had lived right next door to a concept artist for a couple of years, his name is Rafael. He had just graduated from the American Film Institute and we bumped into each other one very late night while he was walking his dog and I was about to make a caffeine run to the store.

Now, AFI will have film industry professionals come in to talk to and critique their students. One such professional happened to be Rick Carter, Production Designer extraordinaire. He was quite taken with Rafael's senior thesis and told him to call him once he graduated. Needless to say, he did call Rick who was working on Avatar alongside James Cameron and so he brought him in. Later on, Rafael then brought his new friend (me) to do a stint on the movie. Avatar led to a friendship with Anthony Almaraz, the man who creates pretty much every Motion Capture suit that is used on all these movies. He gave us the heads up about Robert Zemeckis' "A Christmas Carol" starting up. I went over there (literally across the street) and have continued now through to "Mars Needs Moms" and we will most likely be starting up on "Yellow Submarine" in early 2010.

Avatar
Image courtesy of the Official Avatar Movie Flickr page
© All rights reserved

What was your role in the movies?

For "Avatar" and for the first couple of months on "A Christmas Carol," I started out like everyone else, in the bittersweet job of Production Assistant, lol. It can be a hard job as you are doing literally whatever is needed at any given moment, and it's normally the work no one else wants to do. But, what is great about the job is you are "utilized" (used) by everyone in every department, so you get to see absolutely everything art and design-wise, which is mind-blowing.

For the last few months on "A Christmas Carol," IMD moved me into being the Physical Asset Tracker. The final result of the job entails having to know precisely what objects are onstage (called the Volume) in every take, of every scene, for the entire film - all in real-time. That could be a HD camera, an actor, a piece of set decoration or a prop, all referred to as Assets. There can be hundreds, or in the case of "A Christmas Carol," thousands of Assets.

Four to six weeks before filming begins, I will start cataloguing the assets that will be used on the film. Every asset has a specific name which is translated into a barcode, which is printed out and attached to that specific object. Along with photographing the asset, and creating a quick motion capture of the object, I also fill out a laundry list of details about said asset. Every shred of this data is incorporated into our computer database. This asset processing will normally keep going on even throughout the duration of filming as more and more assets are being manufactured by our prop department for upcoming scenes.

Now, during production, say right before a scene is captured, all the assets for that specific scene will start to be brought in through me as I use a handheld laser scanner and check in all the barcodes on the assets. This is what gives us the list of assets at any given time during filming. I check the assets as they go in or out of the Volume throughout the day and everything is updated in real-time across everyones' computers in the building.

A larger reason for doing all this is because later on if you were to bring up a motion-captured scene and play it on a computer, you see nothing but moving swarms of dot "constellations." IMD has a huge team up north that needs to know what each group of dots actually really is, so that is where my work has done its part by detailing out what each of those group of dots is and all that various data can be referenced by anyone at anytime throughout not only production, but also during the two or so years of post-production.

Subsequently, on my second IMD film, "Mars Needs Moms," I started training in Data Tracking, which is the cleaning and manipulating of the actual actor Motion Capture data that comes in from the Volume. It's very labor intensive and complex, but it's such a blast to see the final result applied to the body/face rig of a 3D character and see the real actors performance drive the virtual character!

Avatar
Image courtesy of the Official Avatar Movie Flickr page
© All rights reserved

Is there anything particularly funny or special that happened while working on a movie? And generally, what was it like?

I could go on forever, but the one general aspect I will always mention to people is being able to witness first-hand the incredible talent every day. I mean, for me being such a movie fan/geek to begin with...then to be standing right next to Cary Elwes and Robin Wright (Westley and Buttercup from "The Princess Bride"), Bob Hoskins ("Roger Rabbit"), Colin Firth ("Bridget Jones' Diary"), Gary Oldman (Leon / "The Professional"), and of course Jim Carrey ("Ace Ventura")...is all just an exercise in self control! Being able to see them work their craft was amazing. They would be there just quietly talking to Zemeckis, and then action would be called and they would literally, instantly, come to life in their character, as if some mysterious switch had been flipped. I know it may sound like a small thing, yet to experience it was almost jarring at times. Their ability to immediately activate these various emotions, and then to literally project them out like this powerful wave, it at times would force you, unwillingly, into that emotion yourself. The strength and talent of every one of these actors is something I'll always keep as an irreplaceable memory.

And, there is no way to leave out being able to see director Robert Zemeckis at work. All my life I have absolutely always loved learning as much about movie making as possible. And after watching Zemeckis' films for so many years (my faves being: "Romancing the Stone," all three "Back To The Future" films, "Death Becomes Her," "Contact," "Cast Away" and "Beowulf"), then seeing this powerful director every day, right in front of me doing his thing, is just ridiculously wonderful. And, really...there is not much to describe in his way of directing. He had obviously discussed characters and scenes with his actors beforehand to what I would believe to be a great degree. I mean, Zemeckis was almost casual in his directing: very calm, quite, confident. He seemed not concerned with micro-managing his actors into getting what he wanted. He knew what he wanted and seemed to know they would all arrive right where they should be. With what I saw as a deft touch from years of experience, he was very much just enjoying the ride. Truly, for me being able to "be there" in the center of this production and around these talented people is one of the highlights of my life. The cool factor was truly off the scale.

For all the good memories, believe me, the time spent working on a movie can be intense. The days are long and whatever needs to be done, usually needs to be done yesterday...and hopefully perfectly. But, I would be wrong in not mentioning the other, even more prevalent, aspect of my job which is all my co-workers which are just amazing to be around. I've never worked at a greater place with nicer people. We are all quite aware of the cool factor of our job and are very happy to be there, doing what we love. I count myself as very lucky and, like most, hope that the luck keeps coming.

Disney's A Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge (JIM CARREY) "DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL"
©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved.

You've shared your experiences with "Avatar," "A Christmas Carol" and "Mars Needs Moms." Each movie with a different role, and different director. This may be a difficult question, but I was wondering which one was the most enjoyable, not only from a work point of view as movie making is about the whole experience and not just the part you're asked to do.

It's like picking a favorite child, but I have to keep going back to "A Christmas Carol." It was the breaking point and time for so many things. I believe if one is lucky enough, is blessed enough, a time can happen in which everything seems to come together and you are simply able to walk through a nearby door that you hadn't seen before. My time on this movie felt like that for me. Yes, it was an amazing experience and it was wonderful being around these famous, talented people, but it was truly more than that. Somehow it ran a little deeper, and so in some intangible way this particular movie did mean more to me. It was that I could look straight at it all and at that very moment realize that this, right here and now, was the real brunt of my beginning, you know? I felt I didn't need to wait for the perfect vision of hindsight to understand that my time on "A Christmas Carol" would be the time to remember fondly. I absolutely knew it, right then and there. I felt aware of it all, and try to continue to be so to this very day.

Disney's A Christmas Carol
Left to right: Ebenezer Scrooge (JIM CARREY), Tiny Tim (GARY OLDMAN) "DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL"
©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Do you have anything planned after "Yellow Submarine"?

As far as IMD and Robert Zemeckis is concerned, they have around seven movies in line that are on some level of development for motion capture. Recently announced has been "Roger Rabbit 2" and "Real Steel" with Hugh Jackman. These both will be a blend of live action and motion capture. Another cool property, still in very early development, is called "The Stoneheart Trilogy." The three books were written by Charlie Fletcher, and they are a children's fantasy series about a London boy in a mystical world where statues come to life. So, the motion capture future for IMD looks quite bright.

James Cameron did have Weta start a year ago on pre-production art for "Battle Angel," and that property will continue on along with his producing and directing a segment of the new "Heavy Metal" movie. Very recently, it came out that Cameron had secured the rights to "Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back" by Charles Pellegrino. It's about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and will obviously be very much a drama (and not motion captured). And, lastly, let's not even mention what he may have in mind for the next (possibly two) "Avatar" sequels. Yes, possibly two more.

My own personal plans are to continue pursuing my on-the-job training at IMD in Los Angeles as much as possible for now. The knowledge to be gained in Data Tracking is essential, and the various 3D disciplines that branch off of there are fairly large. Then, on top of that, there is the IMD pre and post production facility in Marin County, California, and the 2D and 3D opportunities there are endless. So, bottom line, I will continue to learn and work my way onwards even whether or not that is at IMD or another studio. With the combination of 2D, 3D, motion capture and the movie industry, I am definitely in there to stay. Now, beyond film work, I have recently started on a long talked about project between myself and another writer for me to illustrate a small series of children's books, using 3D rendered scenes to ultimately look like 2D paintings. I'm very excited to take that on and have already started on creating concept art.

I also heard somewhere that the technology developed for movies is intellectual property of the film director (for example, WETA came up with some solution for the virtual cam used in "Avatar," but it belongs to James Cameron). Is this correct?

I believe that may be correct only in the particular case of "Avatar." My short answer is that the intellectual property of the cameras belongs to Cameron, because he (and a couple others) were the ones to initially conceive of these specific models. What you are most likely referring to are two things: the on-set, virtual camera system, used to view the ongoing scene in realtime 3D, and the stereoscopic 3-D "Fusion Camera System," used to film the live-action sequences in 3D. The latter camera being developed by Cameron and Vince Pace, both of these items were basically the idea of Cameron and company, so that is why he would be reserving rights to them.

With all these developments on Performance Capture (from both James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis), do you think interest in computer animated features will grow?

The interest in computer animated features is definitely growing very rapidly with both viewers and directors. "A Christmas Carol" was a huge technical leap over not only "Polar Express," but also "Beowulf." And with "Avatar" setting a high bar in overall realism, I can't but have an even greater interest for "Mars Needs Moms," "Yellow Submarine," "Battle Angel," etc. Then you look at Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and what Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg will be doing with "TinTin," and that really helps set the stage for performance capture to be another great tool for use not only in filmmaking, but the continued and necessary part of the actors to do so much more than just add their voices to a 3D character.

And, admittedly, we all need for the price of performance captured films to come down as the budgets are, shall we say, a little steep? But, with technological repetition comes efficiency and lower prices, so we will eventually see the further production of larger scale, performance captured, computer animated features. And, really, it should be mentioned that not every movie can just be, or will be turned into this kind of movie. Not only do you need to have the right kind of environment and story in your script to call for the massive task of every single object to be modeled, textured, rigged, lighted and animated, but you also need the right kind of director. You need a director that truly desires to spend two to three years directing the creation of every nuance of the world that will occupy that story. While it may not be for everybody, I don't think it's going to stop those who want another movie-making tool to try out, and it certainly won't stop us from going to check them out.

Considering motion capture setups don't come cheap, do you think that kind of technology will ever be available to independent-but-professional filmmakers wanting to create their animated features without having to spend countless years keyframe-animating their shots?

Now, what you see with Zemeckis and Cameron is absolute bleeding edge tech. What will later exist as industry standard procedures and technology will be dictated by the movies they are making right now. And, as we all know, all technology eventually runs downhill, both in availability and price. And, really, the base of what they are doing now are just upscaled, very high resolution versions of what is done every day in video game creation, of which has used motion capture for fifteen years now! So, I foresee that motion capture will steadily become less expensive on the prosumer level. For those of us that have been to Siggraph, we have always seen the multitude of companies selling their lower cost rigs. And while those are still coming down in price, what I am excited to see is the possible future, emerging technology of software and camera alone capturing human movement. If and when we could have human movement, even halfway decently captured by video cameras and software alone, that would blow the roof off of 3D home users. Someday, 3D technology could be an almost boring, everyday tool in how anyone could choose to tell an animated story, and I believe that will be the day when we discuss less of the image tech in front of our face, but even more of the meaning behind the story.

Do you have any final words you may want to share with our readers?

I would like to thank the multitude of members and staff here at Renderosity that have hung out with me in the forums over the last 10 years (Wow...seriously, TEN years?!). Well, without your answers to my early noob questions, without everyone's artwork to inspire me, without the monthly forum challenges to drive me...I honestly don't think I would be in the position I am today. So, my sincere thanks to all of the usual suspects. And, I'll also take a moment to drive this home to anyone that is looking to aspire to any art-related job: I started with just Poser 3 and Bryce 4, and was taught everything I know from the forums here and online tutorials. Believe me when I tell you, the success to be had out there does not lie within how much your tools or your education cost you. It will always lie within yourself. Inspiration, motivation...and when those two fail, determination.

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Sergio Aris Rosa [nemirc], is Sr. Staff Writer for the Renderosity Front Page News. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields. You can follow him on Twitter, and if you want to see what he's up to you can visit his blog.

January 18, 2010

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Member Opinions:
By: JeniferC on 1/19/10
Thanks for keeping us up-to-date on your projects. We miss having you around as frequently as you used to be, but we understand.

I'm glad you keep in touch, and I'm looking forward to seeing your sceenplays made into movies some day!

Hope to see you at Siggraph in LA this August! Take care.

By: KimberlyC on 1/19/10
Wow. Glad to hear of the exciting things you have been up to. I hope the best for your screenplays!

By: RAGraphicDesign on 1/20/10
Happy to read this. Keep us updated on the progress of your projects.
And always glad to meet you on the forums:)

By: DreamWarrior on 1/20/10
I loved the interview and I'm very happy to know you're doing so good, Kirk!

By: StaceyG on 1/20/10
So cool AS. Very cool indeed.

By: Acadia on 1/21/10
Congrats on your success! I'm thrilled for you!!

I too miss seeing you around the forums!

By: lior on 1/27/10
Congrats!!!!!!!!

By: Atron on 1/27/10
Kirk, I miss you as a Bryce Moderator; please come back! ;-)))


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