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.

Animation Magazine - - Opportunities - By Martin Gre­bing

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 via­ny­bonean­i­ma­tion. 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.”

ILM found ways to im­prove even fur­ther upon its dig­i­tal ver­sion of the Hulk, above. ILM’s Ben Snow says the Hulk­buster de­sign was a joy to work with. Op­po­site at top: Sokovia rises. Op­po­site be­low: The vil­lain reaches his fi­nal state as Ultron Prime.

The Hulk fist-bumps with Iron Man’s Hulk­buster ar­mor in a key fight se­quence from Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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