• 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' Shader writers talent extends to photography and portraiture.

    CGSociety :: Production Focus
    24 September 2009, by Barbara Robertson

    People working in visual effects and animation studios often consider shader writing to be one of the most technical jobs, a job filled by geeks not artists. And, given a choice, it seems likely that any artist would jump at the chance to create a matte painting rather than write a shader.

    Not so for Danny Dimian, computer scientist, CG supervisor, shader writer, portrait painter and photographer. Dimian would much rather paint algorithms than backgrounds, and his reason why might surprise you.

    “For me, matte painting is mechanical compared to what I do,” he says. “It’s more about matching and less about interpretation.”

     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Dimian’s creative approach to shader writing is on full display in Sony Pictures’ animated feature ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.’ He was responsible for rendering and for the color pipeline. He supervised the structure of shaders. And, he was a sequence supervisor for lighting and compositing on several shots.

    ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ opens in Chewandswallow, a pale, poverty-stricken town filled with hungry people. A young inventor in the town, whose contraptions always go wrong, decides to tackle the problem by finding a way to turn water into food. His invention works: Hamburgers rain from the sky. The town prospers and brighter colors reflect the happier mood and yummy food. But, the invention works a little too well – the food becomes bigger and bigger and ever more dangerous. Soon, the food causes major destruction, and the colors turn super saturated and as unreal as the artists dared. Skies are purple and orange and exciting, but not exactly appetizing.

     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    “The artwork we received from the art department was about color palette, mood, and characters,” Dimian says. “The material properties and lighting were not really there, just an impression. We interpret that artwork. We translate the flat, 2D artwork that does not represent light into a 3D world in the computer where we paint with light algorithms and materials to match the feeling the artists painted from one specific view."

    This is the seventh film Dimian has worked on at Imageworks. He was CG supervisor for ‘Surf’s Up,’ shader writer for ‘Monster House,’ ‘Spider-Man,’ and ‘Hollowman,’ lead shader writer for ‘The Polar Express,’ and a lighter for ‘Stuart Little 2.”

    To light and color ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” Dimian worked with Imageworks’ version of the ray tracing software Arnold developed by Marcos Fajardo.

    “I was really excited to have the opportunity to use a GI [global illumination] renderer in such a creative way,” he says. “We did a lot of exploration into how to do highly choreographed, artistic work with a ray tracer, to constantly shape it to do what we wanted to do, to manage the rays to shape the light the way we wanted. The art director was particular about hues, ranges and colors inside and outside, so we provided more creative control in shaders and lighting that you might expect."

    Monster House. credit: Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
    Surf's Up. credit: Image courtesy Sony Pictures Animation.
     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    So, you can begin to see why this artist embraces what some consider a purely technical role; Dimian didn’t fall into the rendering pipeline – lighting, shading, colors – by accident.

    “Rendering is an abstraction of the science of light and optics and all the things I’ve always been interested in on the technical side,” he says. “But, I’m not interested in it on its own. The primary reason is to understand more on the creative side. It really is the symbiotic relationship in our field. If you can tell stories, you can be entirely creative. If you come up with the color palette, you can be on the creative side. But, to make the right choices so people can actually create the work, you really have to be a link between the two sides."

    To nurture his artistic side, Dimian paints portraits and takes photographs. “I probably have 11 or 12 kinds of cameras,” he says, “from a Canon EOS that I use when I’m shooting reference photos or need lots of images, medium format cameras when I need images with a lot of information but I need to be mobile, and I always have a camera in my pocket or bag,” he says. “I’ve walked around with a camera ever since I was a kid.”

    Although he was born in Romania, Dimian spent most of his childhood in Calgary, Canada – all the way through college at the University of Calgary. When he was born, Romania was still behind the Iron Curtain and his parents soon decided to escape to a free country. However, the only way his mother, a teacher, and his dad, a geologist, could leave the country was if they left collateral behind.

     
    “So, they took a vacation to northern Italy and left their expensive house and me to make it seem obvious that they would return,” Dimian says. “But, they didn’t. They hoped to get me out sooner, but it was four years before they were able to smuggle me out.”

    So, while his parents settled in Canada, Dimian lived with his grandparents in Romania until he was five. “He was a dean,” he says of his grandfather, “and she was a very smart woman, very involved with the university. They both worked, so all day, I would paint and draw."

    Dimian continued painting and drawing until high school in Calgary, when he had what he calls his Alex P. Keaton phase, referring to the character in the TV show ‘Family Ties.’ “I was all about math and science and what was provable,” he says. “Art classes and shop classes in high school were treated as remedial programs for people who couldn’t do math or science. They felt like a place for losers. So, I know it sounds mean and dumb now, but I wanted to prove I could do math. I think I missed a lot because of that rebellion."


    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
      Go to page 2
  • © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Eventually, he dropped out of science and, when his parents insisted that he get a university degree despite his desire to be a painter, he enrolled in an art program at the University of Calgary. Art and computer science. “Computer science seemed like a fairly easy science, so I could do that and art at the same time,” he says. “It seemed like a good, practical answer.”

    After graduating with a BS in computer science, though, he took a job not as an artist, but as a computer programmer for an oil company, another oil company, and a research group. “The longest I lasted was four months for two of the companies and eight months for another,” he says. “I learned that the field of computer programming is more boring than the classes. I couldn’t do that every day."

     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    As luck would have it, one of his undergraduate professors was Dr. Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz, a computer scientist renowned for growing algorithmic plants using Lindenmayer gammars and fractals. “I really enjoyed his class,” Dimian says. “He asked me if I wanted to do a masters degree and I said, ‘yes, sure.’"

    This time, Dimian picked computer graphics and his worlds of math and art began to coalesce. Pixar had released ‘Luxo, Jr.,’ and ‘Tin Toy,’ the animation studio’s first shorts, and that work inspired Dimian to study computer graphics, as well. “I knew that people making the movies were technical, that movie making in the future would need technical people, and they would need to be at home talking and working with artists. It seemed like a perfect fit."

    He spent the next three years working on his masters degree and working, something that seemed like a good idea at the time to avoid going into debt. But, something he doesn’t recommend. “I would rather now that I had taken out loans, put my head down, got the work done, and gotten out."

    When he graduated, he headed straight to Los Angeles. He had been to SIGGRAPH, and he had met people and seen work done by the studios there. But, his timing sucked. “There were massive layoffs,” he says. “I went to interviews and people said that normally they’d hire me, but it was a really bad time."

    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Finally, Metrolight studios offered him a job and he worked there for around two years on a rendering pipeline. And then, he heard about ‘Hollowman.’ “I’d heard that it was a complicated show and a lot of people didn’t want to work on it,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘why not? I didn’t have anything to lose.’” He got the job on the film at Imageworks and 10 years later is still there.

    And, he’s still an artist. When he moved to LA, one of the first things he bought was a view camera, a large format camera. “I became more and more interested in capturing as much detail and quality as I could,” he says. “So that took me to larger and larger cameras.” Now, he shoots landscapes on 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 sheets of film. He scans the film on a laser drum scanner that produces image files up to 800 megabytes, adjusts the color, burns the images onto DVDs, and sends the images to a color lab that produces digital C-prints.

     
    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    “When you work with a view camera, you slow down and observe everything,” he says. “You’re aware of how light behaves, how it changes, and what’s appealing about it and what isn’t. I don’t have to shoot a lot of pictures; I can tell what I’ll get from what I’m seeing. It’s a slow, methodical, contemplative way to work. It suits me."

    But, when he paints, and he paints every weekend, his world changes from slow and contemplative to quick and active. He paints in a studio once owned by Edgar Ewing, a modernist landscape painter he admires. “I live in his house now,” he says. “I should probably pinch myself every now and then."

    But, he doesn’t paint landscapes. He paints portraits. “I typically paint what I don’t photograph and vice versa,” he says. “I like the interaction of actually painting live from a person. This is my time to meet people and push paint around and be free of even my own personal aesthetic, which goes toward minimal and subdued and controlled. When I’m painting people, I’m not like that. I’m drawn to artists like Lucian Freud, where the paintings are about the relationship of the painter and the model. So my paintings are usually a quick thing more about color and mood I feel when I’m with the people rather than a completed thing. It’s the opposite of what I normally do. I don’t know why, exactly.”

    Dimian's portrait work
     
    Photos: Danny Dimian

    But, then, it occurs to him that, as much as his painting and photography contribute to his technical work, the reverse is true, as well. “There’s got to be some feedback loop,” he says. “I’m not sure exactly what, but I find that my work pushes my personal art into something more abstract and less purposeful, more playful, more of an exploration. I think that might be because at work, my goal is to interpret. My goal is to help talented artists and filmmakers who know what they want achieve their goals, show them what they can achieve, and push the further. We give them an interpretation of what they want.”

    One thing he’s certain of, however, is that he needs both.

     

    Links to art and artists that inspire
    Danny Dimian:

    - Lucian Freud
    - Axle Hutte
    - Andreas Gersky
    - Edward Burtynsky
    - Richard Misrach
    - Edgar Ewing
    - Todd Hido

     

    “There’s this thing that happens when I’m involved in both of them,” he says. “If I isolate myself and just paint or do organic analog things, I miss trying to solve technical problems and work out how science affects what we can or can’t do. But, if I spend too long trying to solve technical problems, a whole side of me goes completely numb.

    “I’m happy not to have to choose,” he says.



    Danny Dimian will be a featured speaker at the VIEW Conference in Turino, ITALY being staged from 4th to 7th of November 2009.

    Related links:
    Danny Dimian on IMDB
    Sony Pictures Imageworks
    Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
    Danny Dimian Meet the Artist

    Discuss this article on CGTalk
    VIEW Conference


    © 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
    Previous pageMore Articles

blog comments powered by Disqus