San Francisco-based DMAX Imaging creates high-end visualizations and animations for leaders in design and innovation such as Beats, Mini and Nest. Founded by three partners who wanted to reinvent the prepress experience, DMAX focuses on meeting customer needs instead of selling a particular product or technology.
McKay Hawkes, CGI Director at DMAX Imaging, talks to us about what it’s like to work with such prestigious clients, how perceptions around 3D and photo-real content have changed and developed and how DMAX is able to utilize MODO's 3D content creation toolsets. Check out what McKay has to say via the video below and then read the interview as we go in-depth around all of these topics and more.
ProVideo Coalition: You've worked with some incredibly innovative clients such as Dolby, Beats, Mini and Nest, just to name a few. Do many of them look to showcase that sense of innovation in the visualizations and animations you create for them?
McKay Hawkes: Absolutely. In my experience, these companies are not only leaders in design and innovation of their respective fields, but they are also brilliant at marketing. They are constantly looking at new ways of reaching their target audience, and new ways to communicate and connect with their customers in exciting and visually stunning ways.
So I really don't think it's a coincidence that the same companies that are pushing the boundaries in their respective fields are also pushing the boundaries in how they design, produce and distribute their marketing content, or that they end up using a production company like DMAX that uses software like MODO. I just think there is a culture and value system that we all share that kind of draws us together and pushes us to continually improve and refine the state of our craft.
Do you think people are moving away from the traditional perception around what CG is supposed to look like? Do they now think of and even expect CG to be photo-real?
Well, first off, when I say 3D doesn't look photorealistic, some people misunderstand my point as there has obviously been photorealistic CG in movies for quite some time. What I'm actually referring to is a specific stigma within the advertising industry that 3D rendering never fully captures the subtleties or “essense” of an actual product like a photograph or video does. The general consensus is that even the best renderings, while they might look technically right, still seem to lack a certain degree of realism and authenticity.
I understand this perception, because so many early renders were just plain bad. Remember when everything rendered just look liked plastic or perhaps chrome? I mean, there’s a reason the original Toy Story movie focused on toys. Toys are made of plastic, and plastic is rather easy to achieve in 3D. In fact, it’s so easy that it was actually challenging to get something to not look like plastic.
Truth be told, even I had actually given in to this perception as my own early efforts to produce photorealistic 3D had failed to produce adequate results. Or at the very least, and this is a key point, by the time something was considered to be of acceptable quality, it was no longer economically viable when compared to other production methods. So in my opinion, it just wasn't quite ready for prime time.
It was actually my exposure to MODO that changed all that for me. I will never forget the first time I saw some MODO renders. Subject-wise, they were actually nothing special, just some spheres with various displacement textures and different surface properties. But there was something about them that set them apart from the other renders I had seen. The only way I really knew how to describe it at the time is that they had a soul. There was an authenticity and realism about those renders that I just had not seen in other comparable renders. It’s precisely those qualities that were missing from 3D rendering as a whole.
In large part the stigma has proven stubborn, and that has been one of the more challenging aspects of transitioning our clients to a 3D workflow. So much of it is just getting past peoples’ pre-existing perceptions around what 3D looks like. I do see this slowly changing though, and there definitely seems to be a renewed interest in 3D rendering that just wasn't there before.
I think we really have reached a tipping point. People see what we’re producing and are naturally intrigued. When you combine that with the need for new production methods to meet the needs of an entirely new advertising medium, I think you have a recipe for revolution in the industry.
Let’s talk about that revolution in the industry. You mentioned the new iPad has reached a pinnacle by being able to produce 300dpi, which is print resolution. What sort of opportunities has this development opened up?
Well, that's actually a bit of an arduous question to answer. I think to understand the implications of this, you really have to look at the dynamic of print media as a whole, from the psychology of the end viewer all the way to how it’s manufactured and distributed.
In my opinion, some of the final barriers between the end consumer and the mass adoption of digital media as an actual replacement to print media, is portability, visual aesthetics, tactility, and convenience. Lets face it, while getting information on the Internet is incredibly fast and easy, sitting down at a desktop computer just isn't the best way to consume media. And a notebook or laptop, while more portable, still leaves something to be desired.
Tablets were and are a game changer though. We can hold a tablet like we do a magazine or a book and we can navigate it with our fingers which creates a much more natural, tactile and personal experience. The first tablets were a bit big and heavy and somewhat awkward to hold, but as they got lighter and smaller, they also got more comfortable to carry with you and greatly improved the way it felt in your hands.
Until recently, there was still something missing. It was something that you get with print that you couldn't quite get with an electronic device. Namely, it had to do with screen resolution.
Print has a resolution of 300 dpi (actually higher for vector graphics) while computer displays typically have a native resolution of only 72 dpi. So If you were to ever thumb through a magazine and look at a high quality print ad and then look at a 72 dpi display of the same ad, you would see there is just something lost in the translation. It just doesn't feel as natural. The printed piece feels “real” for lack of a better term, while the electronic display felt… well… electronic. It had a kind of “virtual” and rather unnatural feeling to it.
But with the introduction of the retina display, which is in the 300dpi range, tablets now rival that of print resolution so they look and feel as natural as a printed page. Text is crisp and sharp with no visible pixels at all, and high-resolution photos are truly stunning to behold. In some ways they are actually better than print images because of the increased RGB color gamut (print uses the significantly more limited CMYK color gamut). If you ever doubt how important this increased resolution really is, try going back to an old lower resolution display, like a pre-Retina iPad after you get used to the Retina display. The difference almost becomes unbearable.
We really have reached a tipping point now that so many pieces have come together. The days of magazines, newspapers, etc. are numbered. Moving forward, they will become much more rare as people absorb more of their media through their tablets and phones at an ever increasing pace.
I should note here that I think print will always have a place, but it will likely be limited to things like packaging, retail displays, billboards, etc. Magazines, books and newspapers will become more of a novelty or nostalgia type medium.
In order to take full advantage of these new displays, online media really needs to increase the resolution and format of their content which makes hi-end, hi-res image editing just as important for publishing on a tablet as it is for print. There’s a critical difference between the two though, because unlike with print, a tablet brings the added elements and possibilities of motion and interactivity. And our clients really want to take advantage of those possibilities.
Take our latest animated spot we did for Nest as an example of this. We rendered that out at full Retina (print) resolution and added interactivity that lets the viewer pause, reverse, or continue through the product demonstration at their own pace. It allows the viewer to actually go inside the product and become much more acquainted with its features in an entertaining and visually stunning way.
We really are creating a new type of hybrid media that effectively combines the best that print, animation, and interactivity have to offer. When it’s consumed on a tablet with something equivalent to a Retina display, it is truly a remarkable experience.
To fully understand the implications this has on the market, we also have to look at the distribution side of things. For example, when you compare the ease, cost, and instant nature of online distribution to the obvious drawbacks of print media, it will become increasingly difficult to justify the costs associated with print advertising. By comparison, print advertising is inherently slow, expensive and difficult to distribute. And that’s without even considering that it will be a rapidly shrinking demographic. When you take all of that into account, it becomes obvious that budgets will start shifting much more toward online advertising.
Also, if you look at the cost allocation of a typical print ad, the vast majority of the expense is really in the print, publishing and distribution and not the actual production of the ad. For example, an ad that costs $200,000 to produce, might cost $2,000,000 to publish and distribute in its various hi-profile publications. As budgets continue to shift to digital advertising, the publishing costs that absorbed so much of the budget are in large part done away with. I think this opens up a tremendous amount of resources that can now go into the actual production of the ads themselves, rather than the distribution of those ads.
Think about TV commercials as another example, because the same thing happens there. The actual ad spot represents the majority of the budget. That’s how you reached the customer, so you really had no choice. There’s no need to produce a video unless you paid for the ad space, so the need to develop commercials was limited to the advertising budget which needed to be very large to even consider creating the commercial to begin with.
Now though, we have a direct link to the end customer. I mean, if I’m interested in a product, the first thing I do is go online and start to research it. I am no longer limited to a 30 second commercial, or a single page ad that I randomly came across. I have limitless bandwidth to instantly download as much as I want to become a much more informed, educated consumer. So if you think about it from a marketer’s perspective, why not make a full blown, hi-end video for all of your products? It only makes sense as the costs are relatively low when compared to publishing via traditional outlets.
I think as the medium evolves, actual advertising within publications will become more of a quick teaser element to get the consumer to view the video or interactive demonstration directly on the company's website or wherever they have it published. Most people are annoyed beyond belief with intrusive, time consuming ads (got that YouTube?) if they’re interested in a product they’ll happily sort through and watch endless amounts of various media on whatever they’re researching. It all comes back to the old adage: people love to buy things, but nobody really likes to be sold things.
This is where we get to how this all fits in with 3D. What all this boils down to is a massive increase in production of these hi-end, hi-resolution video spots for an ever increasing number of products. And with the added element of animation, photography is no longer a viable option, and video production is very limiting and difficult to edit to the standards of hi-res print imagery. So 3D becomes the best, most viable production solution.
Considering the importance of producing precise, accurate photorealistic renders, I think this is where MODO really shines. It's just a natural fit. MODO is perfectly situated to be a key player in an area of the industry that is about to see tremendous growth.
Speaking of MODO, can you tell us how you utilized it in your workflow?
Initially, we were interested in MODO because of its rendering capability. In my opinion there simply is no better render engine on the market for photorealistic rendering. Now though, MODO is our internal preferred 3D application for pretty much everything we can use it for.
What that means for us is that if MODO has the appropriate toolset for whatever we’re trying to produce, we’ll try it first. As MODO has grown into more of a full production pipeline in and of itself, we’ve been using it as such. In some cases MODO has been our sole 3D application used.
There are times when we’ll need to go outside of MODO, for whatever specialized purpose we need. Other times we need to maintain file compatibility with our clients who are using a specific application. But to the extent that we can control the pipeline, MODO is our first “goto” solution.
How often have you seen and experienced issues with workflows nearly or totally derail a project?
Where do I even start with that one? Honestly, just making sure that a project doesn't get derailed has been one of the most surprising challenges associated with 3D. It's almost like there’s this natural force or tendency towards chaos and you have to constantly battle against that to keep the project on course.
I think one of the most important things to keep in mind when approaching a project in 3D is that if things are done in the wrong order, or you make changes at the wrong point, then the time and costs associated with the project tends to increase exponentially, not linearly. So the stakes are very high, and if things are not managed properly, it’s pretty much a guaranteed recipe for disaster. It’s kind of like a domino effect. If you accidentally knock over the last few dominoes in a long chain, no big deal but if you knock over the first domino, everything comes crashing down and you have to start from scratch.
Also, by it's very nature, 3D is an extremely labor intensive process. If you aren’t careful it’s very easy to get wrapped up in details that will never matter in the final product. The importance of context is actually one of the most painful and valuable lessons I had to learn in 3D. Once I got that, my productivity increased dramatically.
For example, when you’re modeling, sculpting, texturing, or whatever you can zoom in on a product almost infinitely so it’s really easy to get absorbed in details that will never be visible in the final product. It can become an issue when you realize one of the personality traits that really makes for a great 3D artist is painstaking attention to detail.
There are so many details in 3D to get lost in, so you have to go through great efforts to make sure those perfectionist tendencies are put in areas that are actually going to matter in the final product. I actually find it ironic because if those tendencies are left unchecked, the very thing that makes for a truly exceptional artist in 3D can actually be the thing that will ultimately destroy your productivity and efficiency.
Contrary to that is how you have to be very careful with “shortcuts” in other areas of the 3D process. Like rigging or dynamics for example. There are times when you’re just trying to do something as quickly as possible so you kind of hack something together but then you get locked into it. If that thing gets changed, re-used, or built upon, which it likely will, you may have just created a nightmare for yourself. What started out as a shortcut could end up hurting you down the road. What you hacked together might be acceptable for this one use, but you may have created much more work for yourself in the long run than if you had just put in the time and done it right to begin with.
So it’s a very fine line to walk. It really boils down to experience and context in knowing when and where to put the appropriate levels of detail, preparation, R&D, etc. Personally, my general rule of thumb for details is “maximum size times 2”, meaning I make sure the details I am working on hold up at about double the maximum size that I know is going to be used. That at least gives us some breathing room without creating too much extra work. I’m very cautious when it comes to hacking something together though. I will go through the entire context and every known use of whatever it is I am creating, and based on that usage decide the appropriate amount of preparation and R&D that’s warranted.
If you think about it, you can only know the entire context of what you are creating if you know exactly what it is you are creating to begin with. This brings us to the importance of process. Rather than go into details of the exact process we use, what I would say is the one rule of thumb that pretty much ties up all we’re trying to achieve, is “begin with the end in mind”. Pretty much every tried and proven production method that’s been established within the industry can be summarized with that common goal. So we have a process that involves milestones and sign-offs at specific steps. After something is signed off on, it’s understood that a change after that point should be the exception, not the rule. Because those kind of changes likely requires an increase in time and/or budget.
So it’s the “process” that should really be the focus when it comes to workflow?
I’m a huge advocate for out of the box thinking. In fact, sometimes it’s difficult for me to think “in the box”. But there is still something to be said for process and procedure. For me, when it comes to 3D animation, following the general process for production is non-negotiable. It’s more of an eternal law or principal that applies to any specific pipeline.
This is an area that the forces tend to line up against you and want to derail your project. Generally, creatives really don't like boundaries and they don't like processes. They want to be free thinkers and design on the fly, or create as they go. I should know because if I’m left unchecked, that’s my natural tendency as well. But that just doesn't work in 3D animation. In fact, that will pretty much guarantee failure.
As a Director/Producer, having learned these lessons all too well, I stay very well disciplined in this regard. It takes a strong personality at times as you will have to push back and keep those creatives in check. With me though, this point is non-negotiable. And when the product comes out on time, within budget and looks truly stunning, people tend to forgive my pigheaded tendencies in this regard.
The speed of MODO is something that's obviously important for you. Is that because of how quickly you can develop what you want, or is it more about being able to turn things around for your clients?
Well, both actually. The thing about generating purely 3D content, is that you don't really get anything for free. What I mean by that, is if you don't add it to the scene, texture it, model it, animate it, simulate it, light it, etc. it just doesn't magically appear. Nothing exists until you create it and every single detail associated with it. And with work as demanding and critical as ours, every detail has to be precisely right or it just won't fly.
3D can become a bit of a black hole because you have so many areas to focus on and so many details that need such a high level of attention. To put it bluntly, the whole thing can become a merciless, time sucking vortex. So having the most efficient tools available is extremely important to help make sure we meet the increasingly tight deadlines our clients demand without sacrificing quality.
I mean, let's play this out from an artists' perspective. There are so many details that need attention and you're trying to get every precise, subtle detail exactly as you want it. You're constantly having to wait, wait, wait, then wait some more. At some point the demands become overwhelming and a compromise needs to be made, and the final product will clearly reflect that.
Conversly, having very fast feedback, as is the case with render preview in MODO, is a massive time saver that allows the artist to very efficiently achieve the exact subtle details they are envisioning for materials, texture, composition and lighting. They can more quickly move onto the next thing. And again, when there are so many details that need attention, as is the case with generating 3D content, then this is really what can make or break a project.
You know, I have often heard people say the key to producing great work is all about having the right talent, or combination of talents. I agree with this to some extent, but If you really think about it, to produce truly exceptional work, it's not always just a matter of whether someone has the talent, but whether the tools they're using can adequately accommodate that talent. Because if they don't, there has to be a compromise somewhere. The best work comes when the greatest talent meets the best tools to effectively accommodate that talent.
Additionally, with increasingly tight turnarounds and an ever increasing volume of work, maximizing our efficiency even further becomes a necessity. So in addition to having the right talent, I've found the best way to keep our quality standards high is through a combination of an efficiency in process and workflow, tight collaboration, effective communication, adequate processing power and of course, having the best tools available for the job. And for us, MODO offers the best tools the trade has to offer for an ever increasing number of 3D applications.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to find out about MODO's 3D content creation toolsets?
I think the fact that MODO has such a robust, full-featured toolset. Because MODO started out as a groundbreaking modeling application, some people tend to think of it only for that, or maybe they have heard of its gorgeous and fast rendering, so they might see it just for that. But what many people don't realize is that MODO has evolved tremendously over the years with every major release offering an entirely new feature set.
MODO now has fully integrated dynamics, sculpting, topology tools, particles, rigging and animation. So in many cases, MODO can meet the 3D demands of a production pipeline in and of itself.
Also I have heard of a few common things that have prevented some people from fully adopting MODO into their production pipeline. For example, render layers and a nodal based shading system. Well, render layers were a rather understated feature added in 601. And 801 has just added a nodal based shading system to the mix. This gives the user the option of using the existing layer based Shader Tree or the new node based system or even using a hybrid of the two. All of it gives the user tremendous flexibility.
And let's not forget that these features aren't just thrown in under the hood in any old way. They are all so well thought out and integrated in such a way that brings these tools to the user in a really refined and intuitive manner. It's actually kind of difficult to explain, so I think MODO really just has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.