Tag Archives: Midnight Sherpa

The hybridization of VFX and motion design

Plus the rise of the small studio

By Miguel Lee

There has long been a dichotomy between motion graphics and VFX because they have traditionally serviced very different creative needs. However, with the democratization of tools and the migration of talent between these two pillars of the CG industry, a new “hybrid” field of content creators is emerging. And for motion designers like myself, this trend reflects the many exciting things taking place in our industry today, especially as content platforms increase at an incredible rate with smartphones and new LED technologies, not to mention a renaissance in the fields of VR, AR, and projection mapping, to name a few.

Miguel Lee

I’ve always likened the comparison of motion graphics and VFX to the Science Club and the Art Club we remember at school. VFX has its roots in an objective goal: to seamlessly integrate CG into the narrative or spectacle in a convincing and highly technical way. Motion graphics, on the other hand, can be highly subjective. One studio, for instance, might produce a broadcast package laden with 3D animations, whereas another studio will opt for a more minimal, graphical approach to communicating the same brand. A case can typically be made for either direction.

So where does the new “hybrid” studios fit into this analogy? Let’s call them the “Polymath Club,” given their abilities to tap into the proverbial hemispheres of the brain — the “left” representing their affinity for the tools, and the “right” driving the aesthetics and creative. With this “Polymath” mentality, CG artists are now able to generate work that was once only achievable by a large team of artists and technicians. Concurrently, it is influencing the hybridization of the CG industry at large, as VFX companies build motion design teams in-house, while motion graphics studios increasingly incorporate VFX tools into their own workflow.

As a result, we’ve seen a proliferation in the “lean-and-mean” production studio over the last few years. Their rise is the direct result of the democratization of our industry, where content creation tools have significantly evolved in terms of technology, accessibility and reliability. One such example is the dramatic increase in render power with the rise of third-party GPU renderers, such as Otoy’s Octane and Redshift, which have essentially made 3D photorealism more attainable. Cloud rendering solutions have also popped up for conventional and third-party renderers, which mitigates the need to build out expensive renderfarms — a luxury that is still privy to companies of a certain size.

Otoy’s Octane being used on one of Midnight Sherpa’s jobs.

Motion artists, too, have become far more adventurous in employing VFX-specific software like Houdini, which has simultaneously become far more accessible and egalitarian without any compromise to its capability. Maxon’s Cinema 4D, the heavily favored 3D application in motion graphics, has had a long tradition of implementing efficient software-specific workflows to bridge its ecosystem to other programs. Coding and script-based animation has also found a nice home in the Motion repertoire to create inventive and efficient ways to generate content. Even the barrier of entry for creating VR and AR content has eased quite a bit with the latest releases of both the Unity and Unreal engines.

Aside from lower overhead costs, the horizontal work structure of the “lean-and-mean” model has also cultivated truly collaborative environments where artists of trans-disciplinary backgrounds can work together in more streamlined ways than can be done in an oversized team. In many cases, these smaller studios are forced to develop workflows that more effectively reflect their team’s makeup — these systems often enjoy more success as they reflect the styles and, even, personalities of the core teams, which institute them.

The nature of being small also pushes you to innovate and develop greater efficiencies, rather than just throwing more bodies at the problem. These solutions and workflows are often baked into the core team and rolled out on future projects. Smaller studios also have a reputation for cultivating talent. Junior artists and interns are often put on a wider range of projects and into more roles out of necessity to fulfill the various needs of production, whereas they are typically relegated to a single role at larger studios and oftentimes are not afforded the opportunity to branch out. This conversely creates an incentive to hire artists with the intent of developing them over a long term.

There are downsides, of course, to being small — chief among them is how quickly they reach physical capacity at which point jobs would have to be turned down. The proliferation of small studios equals more voices in the landscape of content, which in turn directly contributes to the greater evolution of design as a whole.

Now that the playing field has been technologically equalized, the key between failure and success for many of these companies lies in whether or not they can craft a voice that is unique amongst their peers in an increasingly saturated landscape.

Main Image: Audi – Photorealism is more achievable in a streamlined production pipeline.


Miguel Lee is partner/creative director at LA’s Midnight Sherpa, a boutique creative studio for brands and entertainment.

Behind the Title: Midnight Sherpa creative director Miguel Lee

NAME: Miguel Lee

COMPANY: Midnight Sherpa (@MidnightSherpa)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We are a boutique creative CG studio built on the ideal that all our work should be effectively communicative and visually engaging. We’re not shy about embracing new technology and experimentation. Our work ranges all mediums — from large-scale environmental exhibits to content for mobile.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Co-Founder and Creative Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I see myself as a lens for our clients to view the world differently. Most people engage us when they’re looking for a new perspective on their product/brand. I tend to venture outside the realm of design to draw inspiration. Whether it’s attending lectures on gravitational waves or just getting into my car and driving to new places without a map, I incorporate my experiences and sensibilities to craft a unique vision for the client.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I believe that being well versed in the tools is a huge plus to being an effective director. In the same way that many of the greatest symphony conductors are also skilled instrumentalists, a creative director who can design, animate and experiment alongside his team will inevitably come up with more groundbreaking and nuanced ideas. I constantly try to learn new software and techniques while continually refining my design and animation skills. The trick is to not get so mired in the minutiae as to miss the bigger picture.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
I love presenting ideas to a client. Coming up with concepts and forming them into powerful narratives and unique experiences is the hallmark of what we do. Sharing ideas we are passionate about gets me so excited that I often can’t sleep the night before a presentation. I am also a huge fan of defining the work culture — making sure that both our artists and clients have positive experiences with us.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Not knowing the future — though it’s also kind of exciting that way.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Early in the morning, right as the sun peers over the horizon.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I would teach. I’m fortunate to have taught the past 10 years at my alma mater (the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena). I find great joy in sharing knowledge with those who are eager to learn it.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
There were two constants in what I’ve always wanted for my career: to create and to make an impact. Despite always having an interest in digital art, I studied engineering and english when I was in college thinking that I could build or write to achieve that impact, respectively.

It wasn’t until I formally studied art and design that I realized the potential of reaching the masses by creating visual content. After I graduated college, I attended Art Center, where I dove into motion graphics during my first term. At that point, I put all of my focus into mastering that medium. Along with film, it remains the most powerful tool I know for visual communication and for making an impact.

Hunted

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
We recently created some content featuring top-tier players for Riot Games’ League of Legends, a broadcast package and title sequence for the CBS’s reality drama, Hunted, as well as theatrical brand content for Dolby Cinema, which recently won a Golden Trailer Award.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I directed the main and end sequences to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim in 2013. Guillermo very graciously gave me the freedom to design and execute my vision for the titles of his film. With an elite team of animators, we completed the sequence in less than two months (which included a stereoscopic 3D delivery.)

I also single-handedly created the opening title sequence for the film, which was an exciting technical and artistic challenge. The whole project proved to be a case study on the art of developing efficiencies to get the project done within the aggressive schedule without any compromise to the vision and scope. Seeing the end result on a huge IMAX screen was glorious.

NAME THREE THINGS YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
The Internet, air conditioning and Tylenol.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
I’m an avid follower of CGP Grey, Vsauce, Numberphile and PBS Space Time on YouTube. My guilty pleasure is the NES Speedrunning community on Twitch, for the sheer ingenuity and obsession of people trying to beat 30-year-old video games in record time. Archdaily, CGTalk and 500px are constant sources for visual inspiration. Facebook has proven to be a fantastic tool for staying connected with friends and colleagues around the world.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
Only when I’m engaged in a task that doesn’t require reading, writing or coming up with ideas (modelling, animating and compositing are good times for tunes.)

My current go-to’s are Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, A Prairie Home Companion, and the entire soundtrack to Evita.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
My way of dealing with stress is to simply bear down and work harder — I tend to like running toward the fire, not away from it. Besides, I think I would be too fixated on the problem to enjoy any activity not related to solving it.