INNOVATION LEAD, PRODUCTION DATA & TECHNOLOGY
Image Engine's Innovation Lead Carsten Kolve tells us the ins and outs of his role at the studio, the value it provides artists and clients alike, and the experiences he's had that have brought him to this point in his career.
How did you get your start in visual effects?
During the dotcom boom of 2000 I interned at a German web company that was planning to build a social media platform that nowadays would be considered a mix of Facebook and Second Life (both of which were not around / popular back then). While that plan ultimately came crashing down when the market collapsed in the big financial crisis this was the first time I got to play with the tools of the trade (Maya, Shake and even a motion capture system) working on promotional spots and music videos – and more importantly, got to work with a group of highly motivated and talented artists that were also just starting out.
What is your educational background?
I was passionate about movies and VFX from an early age, but when I started out there was basically no formal training available to pursue this field. I realized I had a knack for the tech side of things and during my internship learned how useful that could be. So after a CompSci degree I started writing software for VFX production at home and shortly after got hired by MPC London (back in the day when there were about 70 people in the VFX department) to write crowd software for a movie called “Troy”.
Can you tell us about your professional background?
While I started out at MPC writing procedural animation tools for crowds, FX, fur/feathers/hair and character deformation, I was asked relatively quickly if I had an interest in using said tools on shots as technical director. I jumped at the chance to get my feet wet in shot production on movies like “Troy”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, “Alexander” and “Batman Begins” – which in turn taught me a lot about what makes for a good artistic toolset.
After about 3 years in London I was asked if I was interested in helping out Rising Sun Pictures on “Superman Returns” for a few months. Those few months turned into 8 years at all the major Australian companies during which I had the opportunity to expand my skill set to the areas of CG supervision as well as pipeline architecture and got to work on a number of features including the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Terminator’ series. I got to spend time on set supervising reference and element shoots with life animals for Buz Luhrmans’ ‘Australia’ and worked directly with George Miller as the crowd supervisor on ‘Happy Feet 2’ – my first animated feature – quickly followed by my other animated feature, “The Lego Movie” where I worked as FX supervisor for Animal Logic.
7 years ago I finally joined Image Engine here in Vancouver, taking on a mix of roles – from project based roles like FX supervision on “Jurassic World” to serving as the facility level digital supervisor, helping to define overall structures, workflows as well as show specific techniques, for example for ‘Mulan’ and ‘The Mandalorian’. Lately the focus has shifted from the artistic side a bit closer to the organizational and management side of the business.
Looking back, I was fortunate to be directly involved in shot production of about 25 projects and many more indirectly and in lots of different capacities. I guess a common theme is that I have always found myself in roles where novel technological, creative or organizational challenges needed to be tackled and it wasn’t quite clear from the outset how one would go about it.
You are the Innovation Lead at Image Engine. What does this role entail? What are your responsibilities?
My full job title is: Innovation Lead, Production Data and Technology. From that title you can already glean the two main areas I am focussing on – the first one is looking at the data we produce on a daily basis and figuring out how we can use it for better decision making throughout the studio. The second part is staying up to date with any technological developments and how they might apply to VFX work. There is obviously a massive amount of new technological advances being made at an amazing rate and figuring out what makes the most sense to integrate into the studio is part of the job. And then finally a third, but smaller, area is supporting running productions by looking early on or with fresh eyes at potential challenges.
What are some of the challenges that your role addresses?
All of our other artists and technicians are innovating, looking at cool new developments and improving things where they can directly or indirectly – it’s just part of a job in VFX and also what makes working in this field so exciting. – However, shot production is also highly demanding and while you are on an active project, there can be little time to explore new technologies or alternative approaches to established workflows and priorities might shift before one can make significant changes.
Sure it sounds like a platitude, but if you don’t innovate in this industry, you are going backwards – and this role is one aspect of how Image Engine is addressing this challenge. The scope of the role is deliberately slightly ‘fuzzy’ and it is positioned a bit separate from our core day to day work, allowing for a lot of free experimentation, exploration and failure outside the tried and tested. The theory is that invested time this way will ultimately pay dividends down the road – sure, not everything I am looking at is going to make its way back into our regular workflows, but knowing what does not work can be as valuable as discovering something that does.
How does your role contribute to the studio?
A key aspect of my work is identifying how we can use production data to better inform decision making at all levels of our company: Creating amazing visual effects is hard, complicated by ever changing demands requiring constant attention. Furthermore, we have many artists/technologists and production crew focussed on their speciality area, so quite naturally people will have different perceptions of potential areas that could be optimized and ideas on how to improve them. In such an environment, data gathered from our production processes can help guide the conversation and help establish the true overall impact of an issue and drive priorities for our support teams. In a similar way, forecasting of – for example – resource demands based on actual production data can be much more accurate than perceptions potentially formed by the most recent events. That is not to say, that the experience of our crew can simply be substituted by cold hard data – far from it – data simply provides a base for validation and substituting an experience, hunch or feeling with actual numbers.
As much as I might be able to assist with specific questions and help gather some of these insights, realistically I simply do not have the capacity to do so for a studio of our size – realizing that, my role is as much about enabling others via tool development and education to gather the necessary information themselves and in general help foster a culture of data based decision making.
How does your role impact artists?
Part of my job is looking with fresh eyes at issues as they arise. Having helped build the pipeline here at Image Engine and using it for production work, I have some knowledge of how one can play to its strengths which hopefully does help alleviate some of the pressures that might come with a specific task. Having worked in a number of different places throughout my career, I do think I have a relatively broad understanding of the pros and cons of different pipelines and approaches to production challenges and some experience which might fit the particular problem. More concrete, I have certainly not forgotten my roots in production and enjoy diving headfirst into tech challenges particularly anything involving procedural animation and character FX – no matter if dealing with crowds, hair, feathers or FX work.
I am also part of the team bidding potential new shows. The thing about bidding is, realistically, only a portion of the work we bid translates into projects we actually end up working on. But preparing good bids takes time and focus and if you are a supervisor working on active shows, affording that kind of focus can be difficult. Having been actively involved in past projects and with intimate knowledge of what it takes to execute certain types of work to the quality level we aim for helps identify the scope of work and assign realistic time estimates early on. Bids typically go through multiple iterations and of course, once a bid becomes firmer, key supervisors will be involved, but until then I can act as a representative that has both a view on the data, an understanding of the artistic work involved and experience in assessing novel challenges.
And then lastly, allowing managers and supervisors to make better decisions based on actual data should lead in turn to better outcomes for the artists as well as the projects.
What value does your role provide to clients?
Image Engine is a midsize provider of visual effects and animation work and our unique proposition is that we can both be nimble and are quick to adapt to unique challenges. Given our size, we can’t (nor necessarily want) to compete on volume nor price. What drives us and what clients come to us for, is providing work at a quality level that is indistinguishable from any of the other top tier studios out there.
What allows us to work more effectively as a studio will directly translate into a benefit for our clients. There are lots of factors that can impact the production of a movie and things can change quickly. Having a competent partner in Image Engine that can provide realistic assessments of the work at any stage of production and deliver on expectations ultimately enables our clients to succeed as well.
Filmmaking and VFX is very much a team sport and I am happy to be part of and supporting a group of highly experienced and dedicated artists, technicians and managers pouring their heart and soul into creating memorable experiences, telling amazing stories that move and provide a tiny bit of much needed escapism for our audiences.