22 July 2014

Maxim Fleury, Lead Modeller

Maxim Fleury is Build Supervisor at Double Negative but answered your questions below when he was Lead Modeller – shortly after completing work on all non organic models, textures and lookdev for Man of Steel.  Maxim has most recently completed work on Jupiter Ascending

A Lead Modeller spends their time building hero assets and assisting the other modellers where needed. Maxim has since moved on to work as Build Supervisor on Jupiter Ascending and is currently working on Terminator Genesis.

How did you get into the business?

I studied computer science as I thought they would teach me how to make computer games. Turns out they don’t so I did a bachelor in arts while I finished my studies. After finishing I took a year off and while travelling I met somebody who worked at a games company (can’t remember which one now) and he showed me how they made levels in Softimage. I was sold straight away, this could combine my love for computers and art in a way I’d never thought about before.

So when I got back I did a (3 day) course in 3D Studio Max and…. nothing. This was before Digital Tutors or Gnomon so you needed to do expensive courses to learn anything. And this is where my luck kicked in. My brother is a documentary director and he put me in touch with somebody who made graphics for broadcast television shows and worked with Maya. The first thing he did was give me all the Maya (2.0) manuals (about 25 books at that time) and I spent two weeks reading all (!) of them.

I then worked there for 4 years doing lots of flying logos and graphics but learning heaps at the same time as they gave me a lot of freedom. But television wasn’t my passion and now that I was in this business I wanted more and movies were always important to me. When the opportunity came to work at a bigger company in Amsterdam doing commercials I jumped at the opportunity. I spent another 4 years working up from junior artist to 3D supervisor doing commercials and dutch features. Again learning a lot in the process.

I then left the company and went freelance, working for different post houses and ad agency’s whilst doing my own projects in my free time to sharpen my skills. I also started sending out showreels as felt it was time to go international. This is easier said than done when you’re from a relatively small VFX country and I was turned down quite a few times (including by Dneg).

Great work is done in Holland but there are no big movies on your reel. After 2 years I was successful as a freelancer but an international job still eluded me. Then I was asked by my old boss to work as character supervisor on a dutch movie about a little boy who turns into a werewolf and while doing that I spent a few days at FMX in Stuttgard (which is awesome by the way!) . At FMX I spent a lot of time with the recruiters and handed out A LOT of reels. Almost as an afterthought I gave one to Dneg (they had turned me down twice already!). They called me 2 days later and here I am. Happy as can be.

Which goes to show..Never give up!! It is a combination of skill, luck and timing. It’s not easy but it can be done. Below’s the showreel that got me hired.

Is there anything you wish you had done before you joined the industry which would have better prepared you for your career in VFX for Film?

That is hard to say. The first thing I wanted to do when leaving school was go to art school. But my parents convinced me that I should study something with a future… But if I hadn’t studied computer science would I have picked up Maya so easily? This is a technical job any way you look at it and skills in that direction are important. I think I had a pretty solid base for my current job but of course there are all these courses I would have loved to do. Like anatomy, traditional sculpting, more life drawing etc. In short, more art classes. It’s a double-edged sword, do you pick art or technical? Best to do both!

Is there any advice you would give to someone coming into the business?

Ok, first of all, this is a tough job with long hours which will have you moving across the world. Your work will be criticized and thrown away. You will have to work on somebody else’s vision and try to get a little of yourself in there. You won’t meet film stars or go to fancy Hollywood parties instead you will sit in a dark room, drinking lots of coffee and looking at a screen. Still with me? Yes? Then never give up! Learn as much as you can, practice all the time, make lots of personal work. If you don’t have a job, make more personal work. Follow artists on twitter and ask them questions (most will try and give you an answer if you ask nicely enough) Make a killer reel, not too long and don’t worry about the music. Make a shot breakdown to go with it and just keep updating it. Send out loads of applications and follow up on them. Keep emailing, if you bug them enough they will reply (most of the time). Use linked-in and connect to recruiters. Check their feeds and updates.

What natural skills do you think lend themselves to doing your job?

I was always drawing as a kid and that helped me a lot with visualizing and modelling. Determination, attention to detail, paying attention to that little voice in your head (you know the one, it nags at you that what you’re doing isn’t right yet. Don’t ignore it!!!) But it’s also very important to have social skills as you’ll work with a lot of people and communication is king! Working in a team is an art and ego usually gets in the way.

Are there any particular training / courses you’d recommend?

I think there is a lot of good stuff out there.

Gnomon makes consistently good tutorials and Digital Tutors has become a great source of learning. Then there is eat3D. Stan Winston School of Character Arts has courses I’m dying to do. 3D Total is a great site with lots of free tutorials. ZBrushCentral (although I try not to look too often as it depresses me, so many people who are so much better then me :D)

It comes down to what you want to do. For modelling all the above have great tutorials. Also, take life drawing classes (there are usually some in every town, have a look around) and sculpting classes if you can.

What’s the worst and best thing about your job?

I would say that the best thing is seeing your work on the big screen, little screen or on posters throughout the city. But I also really enjoy making a great model or looking at great work from my colleagues who make my stuff look infinitely better. And learning from the best is not too shabby either. The worst I guess is the long hours, sometimes having to make stuff you’re not invested in or that is just plain ugly (it happens, I know, shocker). Working with clients can be a challenge but it can also be a hoot as well.


From Daniel J. Smith: Hi Maxim. When entering the industry, what approach would you suggest? A generalist’s method or basing your showreel around a specific area of visual effects?

Hey Daniel, I worked as a generalist for a very long time and it allows me to work in different areas when needed. It’s also good to be able to do things yourself without having to go to other people for every little thing that falls outside of your speciality. I would say that you make a generalist reel which emphasizes your speciality (or what you want to specialise in). I, for example, tried to really push the modelling in my reel while still showing that I could do a lot of other things as well. Look at a lot of Reels and see what you like. Don’t send endless turntables (one turn is more than enough!).

From Arthur Jing: Hi Maxim, what would be some of the most useful things to learn as a modeller in order to get into the feature film industry?

Hey Arthur, everybody wants to do organic modelling and characters. The sad reality is that there is more hard surface work out there (luckily I love it) so practise a lot of that. Work on your UV-ing skills and texturing as you will be working closely with texture artists and might have to do some texturing yourself (it’s much better if you can). Learn about topology and how to make your model light but still detailed. We get a ton of reels with cars, characters and boring turntables. The best work is usually when the model is properly lit and in a scene. Try to find a way to show your work in a different light (pun intended). Also work on your organisational skills and naming conventions. Figure out a way to make your scene readable to other artists if needed. And work on creating clean models (no reversed normals, illegal faces, etc.)

From Andrew Jordan: Hey maxim! I also have a similar question. I’m a student at Vancouver film school specializing in modeling. What are some of the key things companies like double negative look for in a modeling demo reel and what makes a demo reel or portfolio stand out among the others?

Hey Andrew, I think I’ve already covered a lot of this, though I would add that we look for artists who have a great understanding of shape and proportions. If you can show you know more then just modelling all the better. At Dneg we love generalists as they can work on something else when there is no modelling. Also learn how to model low poly. If we need a city most of it will have to be modelled quite low poly and we will need tons of proxy models just to get it to render. Hi poly is great but a great modeller can do a lot with less polys and some great textures.

From Noel Mahoney: Hi Maxim, as a 3D artist/ modeller in the games industry, what is the best way to transfer my skills over towards film? Should I attend a masters? Ever since visiting DNeg I’ve been determined to start a career there soon and will stop at nothing! Thanks in advance!

Hey Noel, We have loads of people who came over from games. A masters wouldn’t hurt but just making loads of work showing great modelling and use of textures should do the trick. Maybe do some props from movies you love. Keep at it, and try to expand into other areas as well. You might be able to come in as something else and work your way into modelling. I started as a creature FX TD at Dneg.

From Giuseppe Alaimo: Hi there! How different is it to be a modeller in the feature film industry compared to AAA game and full CG movies industries? What, for you, are the main differences in the way of thinking while producing assets? How do you relate with shader and lighting artists to deliver the realism needed for the visual effects? Of course it’s not just a matter of polycount.

Hey Giuseppe, I think the gap is closing very fast (and by gap I don’t mean that one is better then the other). AAA games consistently have a bigger poly budget and use a lot of ZBrush and Mudbox. whilst on feature films they want more and more on the screen so we can’t just use all the geo we want any more (although some hero models get very heavy). Full CG movies use the same sort of assets that we use, in fact more feature films than you realise turn into full CG movies with live action head replacement (if that). I’m amazed how much is fake these days apart from the obvious stuff.

I work closely with the lookdev and lighting artists and keep updating my models, the UVs and the textures to what looks best in the shot. I think that is also one of the main differences with the game industry, where everything has to be made to look good from all angles. We start out like that and then work it up to look real on a per shot basis. The lookdev artists decide what materials are going on what and I might have to change the hierarchy or change some of the naming to accommodate them. And I have to make sure my model is legal and all the normals are the right way up for the lighting artists so it doesn’t break the scene (although this usually comes up during lookdev). And before all that, it has to work for the riggers as well who have their own demands on naming and grouping. It can get quite complicated on hero digi doubles, characters or other hero assets that need to be rigged.

From Mathias Schulenberg: tips for entering the industry? ^^

Try to learn everything you can. Do tutorials, buy books, watch loads of movies and their making ofs (fun!). Read about artists and what they did to get in. Try some of the same stuff. Practise, practise, practise and show your stuff to friends, other artists and post it on forums. Get feedback and learn from it. Ask questions on twitter, learn some more. Try to do projects with your friends or get an internship at a post production company. You might not make a lot (or any) money but you’ll learn heaps. Remember you can’t buy experience!

From @SamSerridge: How did you get started in the industry? Was there any specific work of yours that caught Dneg’s eye? Thanks for your time, Sam

Hey Sam, I wrote about how I got started above, I also posted a link to my showreel there so you can see what showreel got me hired. It was basically loads of commercials with some dutch features and personal work thrown in. Put your best stuff first! I basically started as an intern and slowly over 8 years worked my way up to 3D supervisor of a small team in Amsterdam. Then went freelance (great way to get some cool projects and see different places but you need to know a lot of people first so it works better after a long term job) And from there I went at Dneg.

From @The_Stealthcow: who is the better silver fox, you or Mr Noble?

Charlie Noble is a great VFX Supervisor and I wouldn’t want to compare myself to him in an artistic way. But as far as silver foxes go? …It’s me of course.

From @Davidt1703: What advice would you give to aspiring modeller’s hoping to get into the industry?

Practise, practise, practise. Take art, anatomy and sculpting classes if you can. Work on your topology, UV-ing and texturing. Don’t show just models but texture, light and pose them. Work out a way to show them in a different way. I love turntables as much as the next guy but a showreel can become quite boring with just turntables.

From @ataulm: what keeps you going, what do you look forward to when crunch time starts to drag?

Hey Ataulm, I always look forward to the next job, there is always something cool on the horizon and if there is not then maybe I have time to do some personal work.

Crunch time is heavy, especially after a few months. I try to stay positive and keep everybody happy, that way the atmosphere is heaps better, after all, a happy team is a productive one :D. Though, after a few weeks of 70-80 hours I also look forward to some down time and spending time with my family. You have to balance your life because too much of one thing (even if it is something that you love) is never a good thing.

From @DesmondDemian: what’s the biggest difference between London and Amsterdam?

Hey Desmond, the VFX scene in Amsterdam is on a much smaller scale. If you work on a movie in Holland a big team would be 10 people and most commercial teams are about 3 to 4 artists. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of international work coming Holland’s way either so you either have to leave or make it happen for yourself.

There are some great post houses and I have had a lot of fun working for them, it just seems to be a bit more contained. That has more to do with location, I think, than ability. Though, in the last few years Glassworks has moved to Amsterdam and Guerrilla Games is a big international AAA game developer in the heart of Amsterdam and it’s a great place to live so it might explode yet!

London on the other hand is a world city and you feel it while you’re out and about. There is always something happening. Not to take anything away from Amsterdam (I was born and raised there :D) but, for me, London is amazing. Plus post production here is so huge, with a lot of it centered in and around Soho. When you have lunch you’re always bumping into artists from Framestore, MPC, the Mill or any of the other gazillion smaller post houses around. It feels like one big campus and is better for it. People move between companies but stay in touch.

Dneg is a great environment, especially now that we’re all in the same building and it’s great walking around and seeing all the wonderful stuff people have on their monitors. Truly inspiring.

Thanks for all your questions for Maxim, if you’d like to follow him on twitter head to @maximfleury

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