The Art of Focus
Procrastination opportunities abound when working solo, so here are some tips on how you can keep yourself on a productive track.
Creative drift. Procrastination. Daydreaming. Idling. Dilly-dallying. The list goes on and on. But one thing is certain: If you are an independent artist or animator and work at home or in your own private office space off-site, it is very easy to get distracted and give in to temptation to slack or let your mind wander to non-work things. Here are some tips on how to regain your focus and sharpen your professionalism when your mind starts to drift.
Post your goals for the day on the wall in front of you. Calendar reminders via email or your project-management software of choice is nice, but your goals — both short term and long term — need to be instantly visible all the time, staring you back in the face. Your goals need to be out in the open day and night, requiring no effort whatsoever to review.
Take a breather. Stand up, stretch, walk briskly, do some jumping jacks or a quick exercise of your choice for one or two minutes while keeping your mind completely off work. When you come back to your desk or studio space, shake it off, refocus and continue.
Take lunch seriously. Force yourself to take an hour lunch every day where you get away from your desk, out of your house or studio, and go somewhere far removed both mentally and physically. While on lunch, call or meet a friend to socialize and enjoy your break.
Dress for Success
Wear a suit. I typically avoid suits like the plague, but once in a while, even if you work alone, it can help give your professional side a jolt. This acts on a psychological level that can help make you feel obligated to act professionally, as if you were in an office environment. Plus, when you take lunch dressed profession- ally, people will perceive and treat you accordingly, which further cements this quality in your consciousness.
Turn on or off your music. If you are losing focus, try turning on some music. If you already have music playing and can’t focus, try changing the selection or turning it off all together.
Commit to maximizing your workday. If you get everything done early and have a few hours to spare, add more goals to your plate, preferably in the area of marketing. If you only have a few goals set for the day and know they will only take a couple of hours to achieve, chances are you will drag your feet, procrastinate, and stretch your tasks out longer than needed just to fill time. Add enough goals every day to keep you on an aggressive, accomplishable schedule. However, don’t overload your plate because chances are you will try to hurry through your tasks or not accomplish everything you set out to accomplish. If this happens consistently, goal setting will be taken less seriously and can ultimately become pointless.
Avoid major speed bumps. If you run into a dead end at every turn and are spinning your wheels trying to accomplish what seems like the simplest of tasks, move on. Sometimes, temporarily going around a speed bump and coming back to it later is a better option than letting it eat up a large portion of your day, making you very frustrated and letting it greatly impair your productivity.
The Unnecessary Net
Unplug. Under no circumstances should you have a browser window open while working unless it’s directly, specifically required for a task at hand. This goes doubly so for social media. Log out of all your social networks and turn off all corresponding notifications and alerts.
Take a caffeine hit. Grab a cup of your favorite green tea, extra-dark chocolate, coffee or iced tea. Caffeine can help you focus but take it in moderation as an overdose can make you jittery and anxious, making it that much harder to focus.
Sleep well. Take your rest as seriously as you take your work and play. No matter how much caffeine or energy drinks you take, it can’t make up for sleep deprivation. Your mind and body need to rest about eight hours every night to ensure maximum performance the next day — even for creative individuals like you.
Keep this list handy, perhaps posted next to your goals, so the next time you feel the urge to drift, you’ll have a resource immediately available that can help you re-focus, be productive, and provide excellent service to your well-deserving clients. Martin Grebing is an award-winning animation director and producer who has focused his career on smaller studios and alternative markets. Today, he provides private consulting and is the president of Funnybone Animation, a boutique studio that produces animation for a wide range of clients and industries. He can be reached via www.funnyboneanimation. com.
The stakes are higher, the action bigger and the visual-effects challenges off the charts as Marvel Studios re-assembles its A-list team of superheroes for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The second Avengers feature sees the team facing Ultron, an artificial-intelligence-based global-defense system created by Tony Stark ( Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner ( Mark Ruffalo), that becomes conscious and rebels against its creators. Played by James Spader via motion capture and animation, Ultron morphs from an amalgam of Stark’s Iron Legionnaires into an imposingly huge robot bent on destroying humanity.
In resisting Ultron, the Avengers are joined by the sibling threats-turned-heroes Quicksilver ( Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch ( Elizabeth Olsen), in a massive showdown in their native European country of Sokovia.
Again written and directed by Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a hugely complicated movie that required 19 visual-effects companies to complete.
The bulk of the effects — some 800 shots — were handled by Industrial Light & Magic, which ILM senior visual-effects supervisor Ben Snow says was one of the few facilities Marvel’s production visual-effects supervisor Chris Townsend trusted to deliver on the movie’s most complicated and difficult sequences.
Among the sequences ILM tackled are the Avengers’ opening battle with Strucker; Iron Man’s dream sequence of the Avengers defeated; Ultron Prime; the freighter battle; the Hulk, including the Hulkbuster sequence; and the fi- nal battle in and over Sokovia.
Created by writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema and debuting in 1968 in the pages of Avengers # 54 and # 55, Ultron’s first on-screen appearance was handled by Munich-based Trixter, which had done animation work for Marvel previously on Iron Man 3.
Trixter visual-effects supervisor Alessandro Cioffi says they had an advantage by starting on the project early, having been asked in early 2014 to work on Ultron Mark I in time for the character to debut in a presentation at last year’s Comic- Con.
“We were presented with an original design from Marvel for Ultron Mark I, but … it was rather sketchy and needed some translation into the real world,” says Cioffi.
Spader came in to test out the rig and use it to explore the character.
“He started with the whole mo-cap setup and he could see himself on screen and how he looks as Ultron Mark I — a sort of digital mirror,” says Kraus.
Spader started experimenting with the idea that Mark I was Ultron’s not-entirely-successful first at- tempt at a body.
“We ended up testing some restraining devices on him,” says Kraus. “His idea was the arm doesn’t work, so we put it in a sling. He would drag one of the legs behind him, so we would put weights on that leg and put several other weights on one shoulder to have this asymmetric pose … and try to develop a unique James Spader Ultron Mark I body language, which was really important because he doesn’t have any facial expressions.”
The motion capture was not directly translated to screen, but provided a solid base for animators at Trixter and other studios to follow. “We used it as a base for almost every shot,” Kraus says. “Some of them are key-frame animated, but since we knew the character was defined in how he moves, it was much easier to fill in the gaps.”
The animators also listened to a recorded interview with Spader talking about his vision for the character. “I found it really inspiring for the animators just to hear him, how he thinks about the character — why he does what — to get a good starting point,” says Kraus.
Kraus was on-set for the shooting of the party sequence in Avengers Tower, which includes the introduction of Ultron Mark I and his first battle with the Avengers, to understand each shot and ensure consistency.
In addition to Ultron Mark I, the sequence required 2D and 3D face replacements; a CG ceiling in nearly every shot to cover up stunt and camera rigs; and a CG New York skyline to be seen through the tower windows.
“It’s a very dense sequence,” says Cioffi, who says Trixter had at crunch time about 100 people working on about 300 shots that made the final edit, and about 400 shots overall. “We defined it sometimes as a visual-effects playground.”
As Ultron evolves from Mark I into Ultron Prime, he became part of ILM’s purview. “When he’s Ultron Prime, he’s this giant 8- and then 9-foot robot, so its quite different from a normal-size person,” says Snow.
ILM animation supervisor Marc Chu began by applying Spader’s performance to the character, though, again, it was used more as a guide. “We were using all of the data that we had captured as a guide and then animation would hand match that by eye,” says Snow. “I think that process worked out perfectly for it because I think it really captured Spader and the way he was moving in his performance. And having it be something the animator was involved in was a good way of getting the target as satisfying as possible.”
Ultron Prime has the most complex hero-character rig ILM has ever done, with Snow saying it was about 10 times the size of a standard rig used on the Transformers movies with 2,000 nodes — 600 in the face.
Improving the Hulk
ILM has history with the Hulk, having worked on the character’s movie appearances back to Ang Lee’s 2003 feature Hulk. “He was definitely one of the attractions of doing ( this movie). Can we improve on it?” says Snow.
The facility started with the Hulkbuster sequence, in which Scarlet Witch has made the Hulk even more crazy and savage than usual. That forces Iron Man to break out the Hulkbuster armor to contain the Hulk in a massive battle in the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Snow says Whedon described the Hulk’s state in this scene as akin to a junkie in need of a fix — bloodshot eyes, veins popping, etc. So ILM began by adding more skin details to the Hulk and ended up recreating the character from the inside out. “We added a lot of detail into the texture maps and … then when we went back into the other scenes to do the regular Hulk we kept some of that,” says Snow. “It was dialed back, but it was there.”
One goal ILM had for this film was to reduce the
amount of corrective sculpting done on the shapes of muscles in CG characters.
“We have a great team of sculptors and modelers who are great at sculpting these shapes in both the face and the body, but the effect has always been some slight compromise on the animation’s intent can creep in with that sort of work,” says Snow.
So instead of starting with an outer skin and building muscles underneath it, Snow says ILM looked into recent research on muscle tension and consulted with medical professors to build a more accurate model.
“We built a skeleton, put the muscles on top and then completely simmed the skin over the top of it,” he says. “In the past, we’d tend to hand animate in some of the tension and stretches. … This was much more realistically done in this incarnation of the Hulk, and I think you get a lot of secondary stuff that — even though the audience may not notice it — adds believability.”
Snow also says he was surprised at how much time these changes saved. “It meant our creature-dev guys were stretched less thin, and we were able to spend more time plussing things out rather than fixing problems,” he says.
It also gave more accuracy to both the motion capture and animation performances in the final scenes. “Sometimes you find that you do this corrective work on the face and the performance has changed — his smile is not the same,” he says. “It makes it more true to the real performance.”
For Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Trixter again got an early start by working on the characters for the post-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continuing to develop them through pro- duction on Avengers: Age of Ultron.
“There’s an obvious coherence on the vision of things,” Cioffi says of working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “We always try to improve the look of every asset we work on but having the history with some of the assets is definitely helping us as we can use the experience done on previous movies and just try to improve what we’ve done.”
For Quicksilver, a digital double was used for many scenes, particularly ones in which the character was running through a scene at super speed. “In other situations, we used very high-speed photography to capture as much material from the actor and then speed it up in compositing to create a very photographic type of speed effect,” Cioffi says. On top of that, there were layers of other effects like CG trailing to get the final look.
Scarlet Witch was a completely different challenge, with Trixter doing roto on the most-subtle movements of her hands and wrists.
The final battle sees Ultron attempt to wipe out humanity by raising the capital city of tiny Sokovia high enough into the air that dropping it would create an extinction-level event akin to the meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Since Sokovia is fictional, Snow says a look for it had to be developed. Using locations in Italy and sets like a decommissioned police training facility in London, a look approximating a former Soviet bloc nation was created, mixing older buildings with 1970s-style modern architecture.
The city was built using a library of plates shot on location and new digital assets like streets and buildings. Snow says he wanted to push the earthquake effects of Sokovia’s liftoff with more detail, referencing footage of building demolitions and cliff subsidences.
The resulting asset included interiors with furniture in them that could be seen when the building shook apart and was so large that a workaround had to be figured out to work with it.
Pipeline Creativity Snow credits technical director Ian Roth with figuring out a way to take the asset out of 3ds Max, where it had been built, and put it into Houdini to break stuff apart and refine it by hand. Then it went back into ILM’s proprietary Zeno software for rigid surface simulation and adding dust. Finally, it went back into 3ds Max for rendering.
“It saved us time because we didn’t have to reproduce all of the models in our traditional pipeline, but we were still able to put in things like the skyscrapers that fall right off the edge of the cliff right in your face,” says Snow. “The net result was something that I felt did have a bit more detail than we’ve been able to put in some of these things before.”