• Jason Schleifer: Senior Animator/Creature Technical Director, Lord of the Rings, Weta Digital
    9 September 2002 | Leonard Teo
     Image: At the wheel, Jason Schleifer enjoys the crystal clear air in Wellington, NZ -- where "windy" is pronounced "wendy", and "fish and chips", "fush and chups".

    Jason Schleifer is one of the internationals working at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Jason and his cohort Matt Aitken will be speaking at the 3D Festival London 2002 (October), on various aspects on the making of Lord of the Rings. A regular on the CG Talk forums and a joker at heart, Jason shares with us how he got into the industry and some advise for those entering the field, or seeking a job at a facility such as Weta Digital.

    3D Festival: How did you enter into the digital visual effects industry? How did you end up at Weta and specifically what are you doing there now?

    Jason Schleifer: Like many people in the industry, my interest in animation began when I was young. I was always into drawing comics and making my own little comic strips. When I was around 10 or so, I found a book on Animation by Preston Blair (I'm sure most people have seen his book) and just loved it. I studied that book like it was gospel for years. Growing up in Silicon Valley, the use of computers was really second nature for us kids, so combining the use of computers and my love of drawing and animation seemed almost destined to happen. Not knowing how to actually make a living combining these two passions, I entered University (University of California, Santa Barbara) thinking that a career in advertising was the way to go. After two years of sitting in lecture halls full of 800 students, reading about communication theories and such, I realized that I wasn't enjoying school nearly as much as my flatmate who would come home from painting class every day covered in gesso and oils, whose assignments made my jaw drop. I didn't want to sit in class reading books -- I wanted to draw those naked people, too!

    I decided to give a Photoshop course a try. Lo and behold, I loved it. I spent all my time soaking in that package. Next came Director, and Premiere, and pretty soon I was using Strata and any other package I could get my hands on. My instructor, Victoria Vesna, knew a woman who was working on a children's educational CD-ROM. So I met with Karen & she gave me a job animating little 2D characters reacting to children clicking on them (Kid Phonics was the name of the program). Really enjoying my first foray into 2D animation for production, I tried to convince Victoria to teach a program on 3D animation at the university. She agreed, as long as I helped teach the course. Luckily, Alias|Wavefront had a main development office in Santa Barbara, so I went there to take a week long course in Wavefront software. I was so excited! There I was, sitting in a room full of "Industry Professionals" learning along side them! I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.

    As I was finishing up my education at University, Alias|Wavefront sent out a notice that they needed interns to help them debug a new software package called Maya. I stepped right up and applied for the job, interning for Gary Monheit who was at that time the head of the Dynamics section of Maya (he currently works for Pixar).

    After 6 months of interning, I was offered a full time job by David Fisher (head of Assist at that time) to help communicate between studios on the beta program of Maya and the R&D department at Alias|Wavefront. I traveled around all the studios, working with them on all their Maya issues, solving problems when I could, and meeting lots of people in the industry. In the middle of this, I noticed that there was a small group of people inside Alias|Wavefront doing production. I knew this was where I was headed, and I wanted to be on that team! So I flew to Toronto and met with Kevin Lombardi, Corban Gossett, and a few of the other people working with them on the first animation short to be done in Maya "Mel, the Cowboy". The rest of my time at Alias|Wavefront was spent working with that team creating internal productions to test the software and work with the talented developers at Alias|Wavefront to ensure that Maya worked from an "animator's perspective".

    After three years at Alias|Wavefront, I was ready for a change. At that time Weta Digital was starting up on Lord of the Rings. I applied for the job rather half-heartedly, not really knowing if I wanted to go or not. After a few months I was called for an interview, so I drove down to Los Angeles and met with John Sheils and Charlie McClellan (previous Digital FX Supervisor & Visual FX Producer respectively) who showed me what they were doing. I was blown away by the work the showed me, and within a few months had signed up to come along for the ride!


    When I first got here I was doing mainly creature setup, and ended up helping write the pipeline for integrating the keyframed animation work with the creature work. However, my true love is animating, and after almost two years of working with the creature department, I transferred over to the animation team where I now spend most of my time doing character animation (and some of my time supporting the tools that I wrote while in the creature department).

    3D Festival: What is it like, working on Lord of the Rings?

    Jason Schleifer: It's been quite a ride. It was odd working on the first movie where you really had no idea whether or not it was going to work. I think we all felt pretty removed from the industry in terms of knowing what was going on. New Zealand was relatively unknown by our peers at that time, and many of them thought "what the hell are you doing out there?" In addition, there was a rash of films that were coming out which had great effects, but no story. So I was really unsure as to whether or not this film was going to be the same. Would the effects be fantastic, but the story suck? Would the story keep it together, but the effects fall flat? Would it succeed? There were a lot of questions, and a lot of uncertainty.

    But I must say, that as soon as we saw the first footage cut together -- the Canne's footage with the whole Mines of Moria sequence -- all doubts flew out the window. I can remember the grin on my face and the enthusiasm we all had after seeing that. It was like a fire had been lit and we all knew with certainty that this movie was going to be absolutely amazing.

    3D Festival: What were some of the favourite shots that you worked on?

    Jason Schleifer: For the first movie I had spent most of my time setting up the characters for the animators, so I only actually animated around nine shots, but my favourite one I worked on would have to be one of the Watcher shots where Aragorn stabs a tentacle and the camera tracks up to see the tentacle carrying Frodo. This was a blast because it was action packed, has a number of tentacles in it, and a computer generated Frodo.

    In the second movie I've been able to do a lot more character animation, and there are a number of Gollum shots of which I'm particularly proud.

    3D Festival: For Lord of the Rings, what were the biggest hurdles or challenges? How did you/Weta overcome these?

    Jason Schleifer: One of the biggest hurdles was actually getting the facility up and running smoothly, and transitioning from a research and development structure to a full production pipeline. Weta was an established facility, but had not completed a project like this before and was really un-prepared for the amount of coordination it would take. However, we eventually got through it with a lot of work from an amazingly talented and dedicated group of people. Now that the work is able to fly through, we can actually focus more on the art of the work instead of on the technology behind it. For those of us who've been here from the beginning, this is a huge breath of fresh air!

    3D Festival: Outside of work, do you spend much time doing your own digital art and animation?

    Jason Schleifer: I try to balance my life a bit, but you know how it is. If you're in this industry, most likely it's your passion. You can take some time off from doing your own work, but pretty soon you start to get that itch.

    As I'm spending my time mostly animating these days, I like to keep my character rigging skills up to date by teaching Alias|Wavefront MasterClasses (Siggraph 2001, and 2002), teaching Siggraph Rigging courses (Siggraph 2002), and answering as many questions as I can on the net mailing lists. I've also got a few shorts running around in my head which I'm in various stages of trying to get started.

  • 3D Festival: You've been wanting to start a Funny Animation Festival for some time now. Can you tell us more about this and how it is coming along?

    Jason Schleifer: Basically it all evolved from an animation festival I went to see a year and a half ago. I was sitting there watching one particularly long short which wasn't really catching my attention, and I noticed members of the audience shifting in their seats. I looked around and saw that most of them were either staring at the ceiling, or talking in hushed tones to each other, or doing one of those big sighs that means they're just waiting for something exciting to happen (or trying to get their partner's attention, "Can we GO?"). As the festival went on, I noticed that they only really seemed to be enjoying themselves when the funny shorts were on.

    I'm a big animation nut. I can appreciate pretty much any form of animation (yes, even those ones with the odd music and the dots appearing at random across the screen), but I realized that I was also bored during much of the festival. There were only a few shorts that actually caught my attention and held it, and all but one those were funny (the other was one which was really just beautiful, and short.

    I came to the conclusion that while there's a time and a place for festivals which cater to the art of animation (which is extremely important), there hasn't really been a festival that I've seen which just caters to the joy and entertainment of it. I think that most audiences would love to go to an animation festival which was really full of good quality, funny stories which are short, to the point, and make you laugh.

    Thus, I'm now searching for shorts just like these. They don't have to be CG, they don't have to be in an absolute polished form. What they do have to be is funny. In fact, they don't even have to be full shorts. I'd like to pepper the festival with little animation tests as well (if they're funny). How great would it be to take some of the best "bouncing ball" animations out there and put them between some of the longer shorts? I think the public could get really into that sort of thing. Let them see the process, let them understand what it takes to actually produce something like this.

    I'm hoping to have enough films gathered by the end of 2002 to present them to some sponsors and get the festival going. If possible, I'd love to send the festival around the world so everyone can see it. At the very least, I'd want to put together a DVD of each of the shorts that made it into the festival and send those to the creators of the shorts (as a thank you). I'm not in this to make money, I just want to see an audience full of animation fanatics really enjoy themselves.

    If you're reading this and have a film, please email me.

    3D Festival: What will you be speaking about at 3D Festival London 2002?

    Jason Schleifer: Matt Aitken and I will be talking in two different lectures. In one we are going to be focusing on the pipeline required to complete Lord of the Rings and some of the things we did to make it happen. In the second lecture we will discuss more of the character-based subjects, and show a bit more interactively how we worked (animation, modeling, etc). Both talks will show a number of clips and video from the film, and a lot of research and development work!


    3D Festival: What advise would you give to entry-levels artists wanting to break into the 3D animation and digital effects industry?

    Jason Schleifer: You have to really love the work. It's a very tough industry, and you need to get a thick skin. Most of the time you're doing work for other people, so be prepared to follow THEIR vision, which may not always be your own. But also realize that you're learning every step of the way. Try, with each project you do to stretch yourself. Learn something new. Try something another way. Keep your brain active. Test and push yourself, but also set realistic goals. Give yourself some experimentation time, but make sure you also have a fallback plan if what you're trying doesn't work.

    Also, study and observe everything. Watch the way people move, the way their clothes bunch and fold, the way light reflects off things. The more you observe and get a critical eye for the way things are, the more you'll be able to achieve the vision that you have in your head for the way you want something to appear.

    Don't be afraid to ask questions! You've probably heard this over and over again, but if you don't ask, you won't learn! There are a lot of people in the industry who know more than you do, so ask them! Learn from them! If you know something someone else doesn't, share it with them. Sharing and learning is the only way to really succeed in this industry, I believe.

    3D Festival: For someone seeking a job at Weta, what qualities are being looked for?

    Jason Schleifer: This depends on the area in which the person wants to work, but in general we look for talented artists who are self-motivating and willing to work with a group. You have to have great people skills, and a critical and talented eye. The amount of work which has to be done on these films is so intense, there isn't much time to introduce someone to the basics of their given task, so we do indeed look for experience in visual effects.

    In general, however, most companies are looking for the same thing: someone who will work hard, be easy to work with, and will produce quality work on time and under budget. If you can do that, you're golden! [3DF|CGN]

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    Related Links
    Weta Digital
    Maya Techniques | Integrating a Creature Animation Rig within a Production Pipeline DVD
    Maya Masters - Jason Schleifer

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