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.