Alastair Dixon: diversity and trends in CGI, lighting design & photography
CGI and VFX Lighting Supervisor Alastair Dixon has provided VFX work for almost every format of visual media in a career spanning over 10 years. Idents, music videos, commercials and a feature film from iconic stop-motion studio Aardman, to name but a few. Movidiam spoke to Alastair about his career with Aardman, the importance of combining different passions and keeping on top of the technology changes within the CG industry.
Link to the original post on Movidiam HERE
You’ve worked on several productions for Aardman, one of the biggest names in animation. What is it like being part of a studio with such a legacy?
It’s brilliant here, there are so many talented artists working across a variety of mediums from stop motion to CGI animation. The diversity doesn’t stop there as we produce for so many platforms too, including commercials, film, TV series, games and virtual reality. Being surrounded by all this and such lovely people makes it a brilliant place to develop yourself as an artist.
Leading from that, was ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ a fun project to be involved in? What are the challenges of being involved in a lengthy project in comparison to the shorter contract work you’ve also done?
“The Pirates!” was a great film to work on, It was my first major feature film project so it holds some special memories for me. It was really interesting actually working at the Studios where the film was being hand-animated. Every morning on the way to my workspace I would walk past something different, from huge model pirate ships to miniature sets of London in the time of pirates.
Working in feature film allowed me to really concentrate on perfecting the lighting in the shots I was working on. I really enjoyed being able to produce work to the best of my ability because of the longer time schedules. A caveat to that is that you may only get to work using one discipline (lighting for me) throughout the project. You have to really love that discipline to be ok with that.
A look into the BTS of Aardman’s ‘The Pirates’ feature stop motion film
Moving on to the question about the difficulties of longer form, I have actually found that there tend to be more challenges when working on shorter projects due to the time constraints. With shorter projects, which may have only a 3 week timetable from start to finish, you need to be able to deliver quality work in a fraction of the time that a feature length production may have. Consequently, you don’t always have the luxury of time to be able to indulge in your artistic side. You do, however, benefit from a diverse range of experience and types of projects, which can help broaden your skill-set and enhance your showreel.
Artists in this environment tend to have skills in three or more disciplines as the teams are smaller. Mine for example are lighting, texturing, modelling & compositing.
How does your particular role and approach differ when dealing with stop motion, as opposed to CG animation?
The only time I personally deal with stop motion are when:
– Trying to emulate a stop frame look in CGI by creating high detailed assets with plenty of intentional imperfections in the surface and shading models. In these situations our animators would provide animation on twos (not every frame) to give it the hand animated stop frame feel everybody loves and expects from Aardman.
– I need to integrate CGI Elements into plates with stop frame animation. I would usually gather important lighting information from the set for this, including set measurements and HDRI images, used for accurately replicating lighting rigs.
You have been involved in different music videos of big renowned bands such as Coldplay, Massive Attack or Goldfrapp, as also commercial work for brands like Channel 4, Evian, Mercedes or Sony. What are the main takeaway points from shifting in different formats? Is there any field in which you feel you can boost your creativity more?
One major thing I have learned from working on music promos is that creativity can really shine due to clients often being less involved during the project. It’s also the classic case of promos typically having fewer decision-makers be involved in other projects, meaning the final sequence will end up with a much stronger and clearer story and look as this has been defined by a relatively small number of people – essentially, how the Director first envisioned it to look. The finished spots will also be much longer than a commercial, depending on the promo, which allows for a more interesting story to develop. The downside to working on music promos from a business perspective is that the budgets tend to be relatively small. This means that some of the funding may get absorbed by the production company. A positive is that everybody will usually end up with a beautiful piece of art for their showreel.
Music video for The Staves ‘Winter Trees’. Texturing, Shading, Lighting, Rendering and Precomp by Alastair Dixon. Lighting & Rendering done with V-Ray.
A still from the Global Goals Campaign film for the UN. Look Development & Lighting Supervision by Alastair Dixon; created at Aardman Animations.
You have also done some modelling, cinematography, photography and even trail running. Do you feel dabbing in different disciplines is more rewarding on a personal level?
Mixing it up for me is what keeps things interesting. I’m always wanting to learn new styles and keep up with trends in lighting design and photography. I believe that having these combinations of extra interests helps us grow into better artists by developing the skills to create what’s special and unique to us. You also find ways to make those interests complement each other, which in turn helps you to be more creative.
Expanding on your photography work, you have made several beautiful time-lapse videos and taken a keen interest in landscape, adventure and travel photography. Will that ever take more of a prominent role in your career?
Being able to develop my own ideas full time has always been on my mind. The trick is finding a way to make it pay its own way, and the mortgage! At the moment I am really enjoying adventure and landscape photography outside my full time job. I have a strong passion for trail running too which is taking me to some extremely beautiful places around the world. I always take my camera for before and after the race to capture the majesty of these places in my own way.
Some stills from Alastair’s photography work. Top – Alastair trail running. Middle – Gran Canaria. Bottom – Chamonix in Mont-Blanc.
Is this work you’d potentially like to share with the Movidiam community? How did you first come about joining Movidiam?
I would love to share more photography work with Movidiam. I was invited to join Movidiam in the early days. I knew it would grow to what it is today as it’s obviously a great way to collaborate with like-minded artists to make project ideas a reality.
Working in a company like Aardman, do you feel that there are changes you are currently tackling within the animation and CGI industry? Perhaps on the way you work or collaborate? How do you see a platform like Movidiam being useful in this sense?
With technologies and the way that people are using them in advertising and television changing so quickly, it’s important to keep on top of these changes rather than get left behind. Aardman does this very well.
I can see platforms like Movidiam becoming really strong influencers in the way that teams of artists and production are formed and managed. It could be a really fast way of finding the perfect team for medium to small scale projects that we win, but maybe don’t have the floor space to bring extra freelancers in for. Movidiam would allow more remote workers to get a piece of the action. Systems for remote lighting and rendering in the CGI industry is something that seems to be developing pretty quickly at the moment, especially with the introduction of the Google cloud render system called Zync.
Any upcoming projects you are currently working on which you can share some details about?
I’m currently working on a couple of in-house short films/stings that you should definitely keep an eye out for early next year. Unfortunately I can’t say much more about them at this time.
‘Ray’s Big Idea’. Lighting Supervision & Texture Art by Alastair Dixon. Software used: V-Ray for Maya, Mari, Photoshop, Nuke. Created at Aardman Animations.
‘Aurora Bears’ concept art by Alastair Dixon