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Interview with Jason Schliefer

Friday, January 17th, 2003 | Article by Jessica Fernandes

Senior Animator and Creature Technical Director on Lord of the Rings, Weta Digital

It was a sunny afternoon, outside, in the few non air-conditioned moments spent between courses at SIGGRAPH 2002, that I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Schleifer, Senior Animator and Creature Technical Director on Lord of the Rings, at Weta Digital. After grabbing a quick shot of him, and fellow speaker Raffaele Scaduto-Mendola, of DreamWorks SKG, I proceeded to unearth the answer to my most pressing question ? how did he manage to find a Curious George t-shirt, and where could I get one for myself! Well all right, maybe insight on character rigging was higher up on my list of curiosities that day, but honestly, I really did like the t-shirt (sadly, I have yet to find one of my own). In any case, at least in some inadvertent way, that conversation brought about the following interview, where Jason shares with us his involvement in 3December, life in New Zealand, and his work at Weta Digital on Lord of the Rings. Enjoy!

On 3December

CGC: What will you be speaking about at this year’s 3December event?

JS: I will be doing two presentations this year at the 3December event in Tokyo. The first will be a presentation on how Weta Digital created the computer generated creatures for The Lord of the Rings. This talk will illustrate many of the techniques and technologies we developed in-house to create such creatures as the Cave Troll, the Balrog, and the Watcher. In addition, I will demonstrate some of our ground breaking muscle and skinning technology, give an overview of how we used Massive to create huge battle scenes, and discuss various other tricks.

The second presentation is a subset of the Alias|Wavefront masterclass that I gave this past Siggraph in Texas. The course will be 1 hour and 30 minutes long and focuses on some techniques I’ve developed to create the fastest animation rigs possible.

CGC: Is there a particular reason why you will be speaking in Tokyo, instead of one of the other host cities?

JS: I visited Tokyo about four years back when I worked for Alias|Wavefront, and have always wanted to come back and see it again. Something I really enjoy about these conferences and seminars is the fact that I get a chance to travel abroad and be inspired by CG artists in other countries. A month ago I was in London for the LEAF/3D World festival and there was some fantastic student work which was just so inspiring.. I’m really excited to see what people in Japan are doing right now. Also, I’m a huge fan of sushi, and the best sushi place in Wellington just closed (Tsunami sushi.. mmmm..) so I’m very excited to have authentic really good sushi again.

CGC: You were one of the speakers at SIGGRAPH 2002. In what way do you think your contributions to 3December will be different?

JS: It will be translated to Japanese. :)

Actually, the only difference will be that unfortunately the seminar will cover a little bit less information than the one I gave at Siggraph, due to the fact that it will have to be translated. The thing I’m excited about, however is that many artists from Japan don’t get the opportunity to travel to Siggraph as it can be so expensive (especially for students). So it’s really nice to be able to spread some of the same information to people who may not have had the opportunity to view it previously.

CGC: How does it feel to be given the title of “Maya Master”?

JS: Haha! It’s a bit embarrassing, actually. I was made fun of quite a bit at work by the whole thing. People would introduce me and go “Hi, this is Jason. He’s a Maya Maaaaaster.” Haha! J I certainly don’t think of myself as a master of all things Maya. My main focus is on character animation, rigging, and Mel scripting. If you were to ask me to render something I’d probably shout “Hey, is that Elvis?” and run the other direction. Then again, it is really nice to have a software company recognize artists for the amount of work they put into using the software. There are a lot of people out there who spend hours upon hours upon days upon years learning how to make a bunch of 1’s and 0’s create art. I think it’s really fantastic that Alias|Wavefront takes the opportunity to put a spotlight on the commitment that people put into their product.

CGC: Does such recognition incur any added pressures or responsibilities?

JS: Nothing official that I know of. I mean, I don’t think there’s a guidebook that comes with the title.. and I’m certainly not prepared to go and represent my country in a Mr. Maya Universe pageant. You don’t want to see me in any swimsuit competition, and no matter how hard I try I just can’t walk in heels! J I think the title itself is really just a nice confirmation of the fact that you’re doing something which other people find useful. That’s extremely rewarding.

CGC: From the team at Weta, your name and presence is often noted at cg happenings. Given your daily workload, how do you find time to participate in so many events?

JS: My girlfriend often asks the same question. J Something I really have always liked about the industry is the fact that there is such a varied level of knowledge all across the board. Every person you meet comes to the industry from a different background, and thus each person has a bit of knowledge that you don’t have. I’ve said many times that my biggest pet peeve is somebody holding back information. The industry is always evolving and changing. So many of us are re-creating the same thing.. solving the same problems.. coming to the same solutions. Think of how much better the art could be and how much more exciting things could become if we shared information-as long as it doesn’t violate any contractual obligations of course. :)

I guess for me it’s just that I can’t imagine not participating in these events and helping spread whatever knowledge I can. I get two really big kicks from teaching at the events and meeting people, the first is when you introduce a concept and you see the light go on. Every teacher I’ve ever met says that that’s what makes them teach. It’s the: “Ohhh!!” thing that students do. It rocks! The second thing is when the student says “But what about..” and YOU go “Ohhhh!!!” Teaching and speaking is a two-way street. That’s what excites me about it, and that’s why I try to make time to speak and teach at these events. I like the communal “ooohh!”-ing.

CGC: Before working on Lord of the Rings at Weta, you were working for Alias|Wavefront in California. How difficult was it for you to move to New Zealand?

JS: The move itself was very easy, it was the decision to leave which was difficult. I had been living in Santa Barbara for 8 years when the opportunity came up to leave Alias|Wavefront and move on to begin working in production. There were a few different options on the floor, and of course New Zealand was one of them. Up until I received the offer from Weta, I hadn’t really thought that it would be a reality.. you know, leaving Santa Barbara, moving to another country where I didn’t know anyone, start working on a project which I really didn’t know anything about. None of it seemed real. I had a very hard time actually making that decision, hmmming and hawwwing about it for quite a while. In March or April of 1999, I went with Alias|Wavefront to NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) in Las Vegas. It’s an annual trade show where people come to see all sorts of gadgets and software related to the broadcast industry. As the drive from Santa Barbara to Vegas is quite a fun one, a number of my friends and I decided to save the company money (heh) and drive there instead of fly. After a week in Vegas of working hard and definitely not gambling or going out late to clubs and such (my mom is probably going to read this, ya know), we were driving back and stopped to climb some sand dunes.

We were climbing up and I was still tossing the idea back and forth in my head as to whether or not to make the move when we found two guys sitting at the top of one of the dunes. One of them was eating an apple. The other was drinking a glass of wine sitting on a rug or blanket of some sort. The apple-eater seemed like a normal chap, we chatted about the weather, the sand, what we did for a living, all that jazz. The wine-drinker-rug-sitter-on-er was not. He struck me as a Jim Morrison type. Not that he looked like Jim, or dressed like Jim, or even sang like Jim, but he spoke in weird rhythms and talked what some people would say was most likely a “load of crap”. We spoke for a bit, though, and I explained my dilemma as he seemed like an appropriate person to spill my guts to (drinking wine while sitting on top of a sand dune, of course).

He said something very profound. He said to me “go.” And I thought to myself, “who is this guy telling me to go? What does he know about the decision I need to make? Who does he think he is?” And then I thought “I’m going to get going. This is silly, sitting here on top of a sand dune, getting sand in my camera and in my food and such. I’m going to run down the hill.” So my friends and I started charging down the hill as fast as we could. This was a long hill, by the way, so there was plenty of charging and thinking to do on the way down. So we’re running and tumbling and spitting up sand and I’m thinking about this guy and him telling me to go and I say to myself “Bah, what does he know. I’ll go next time.” And then I stopped myself. Next time? What “Next time?” How many lives to you actually get to lead (don’t answer that, this isn’t a religious debate).. how many times do you get the chance to work overseas on a project like this? So that was it, I made my decision right there, thanks to a man, a mountain of sand, a blanket of sorts, and a bottle of Merlo.

CGC: Did you experience any sort of culture shock?

JS: New Zealand is actually an extremely easy country to adapt to. The currency is cheaper than it is in the states, the food is good, the people are very nice, and everyone speaks English. Well, usually they speak English. They still say things like “tomahtoe”, but I’m sure they think it’s English. Actually the hardest thing was just adapting to the accent. It took me three months to figure out that when I bought something in the super market and the cashier was saying “floybuys” that she wasn’t asking if I wanted to buy something else, she was asking if I had a “fly buys” card.. a card that can earn you points towards flights and other things.

The reverse of that was when I took my girlfriend (a kiwi) to the states to visit for Thanksgiving. We went to a restaurant and she was asking the waiter if something had “cheese” in it. I think the conversation went something like this:

Penny (the girlfriend): “Does that have cheese in it?”

Waiter: “What?”

Penny: “Cheese.”

Waiter: “…”

Penny: “Cheese. In it. Does it have cheese in it?”

Waiter: “I’m sorry.. I can;t.. what?”

Penny: “CHEESE. CHEEEEESE. Is there CHEEESE in it?”

Waiter: “Ch… what?”

< Penny glares at me while I’m giggling>

Me: “Cheese.”

Waiter: “Oh! Cheese! No, it doesn’t have cheese in it.”

CGC: What do you most enjoy about New Zealand, its people or the work environment at Weta?

JS: I think what I enjoy most about New Zealand is the environment, the people and the country itself. Weta can be a blast to work at, and it can also be difficult. It’s like any production house. There are times when you think “Oh man, I’m the luckiest person alive to be here!!” Then there are times when you think “AAAGGHGHHH!!” But you’ll find that anywhere. The exciting thing about being at Weta and being in New Zealand is that you know that the experience of working on these films is unlike anything else you’re likely to have. Ever. The amount of talent that’s in the workshop and in digital is amazing. And the fact that there’s this feeling like we’re the underdog.. the small guy who’s going to come out and knock the world off it’s feet is really addictive. I think that New Zealand’s going to get a lot of recognition after The Lord of the Rings is finished, and I look forward to the kiwis and their country getting the recognition they deserve.

CGC: Any interesting anecdotes to share with our readers?

JS: There are so many things that happen, it’s tough to really boil them down into a few anecdotes. Part of the joy of working at Weta is the fact that there are so many things to do in New Zealand, so many adventures to have. I’ve spent much of the time having amazing travels with friends doing things like black water rafting, snowboarding, paintball, driving on the left hand side of the road, etc etc. The best thing to do is corner me at a trade show or conference and I’ll give you some stories there. That way there’s nothing in print to incriminate me in the future. <grin>

CGC: Before working on LOTR or even hearing about the production, were you a LOTR/Tolkien fan?

JS: I had read the Hobbit when I was a child, but honestly I didn’t know that much about the Lord of the Rings. So when I got the job I bought the three books and set out to read them so I could understand what I was getting myself into. I finished all three and thought to myself: “Right. Okay. So there’s a hobbit. Or four. And a guy named Gandalf (I remembered Gandalf from the Hobbit). And this Strider/Aragorn/Elessar fellow. And some elves. Oh yeah, and that nasty creature named Gollum. Oh! And a dwarf and some other kinds of elves! Yeah, and ah.. men! And.. urhmm.. that ring! And they have to take it back to where it was made cuz the evil guy is reeeeally evil. Okay. So what happened again?” So I started to re-read it, and by the time I got halfway through the second book I felt like my entire life was Lord of the Rings since I was working on the show and reading it and seeing all the artwork, and I figured that I’d rather wait for the movie to come out, so I stopped reading it. However, that was three years ago, and now I know the stories so much better.. I’m actually interested in picking it up again. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just wait for all three movies to come out.

CGC: How much artistic freedom are you allowed to contribute to the films, and in what capacity?

JS: That’s a real interesting question. We’re actually allowed quite a bit of artistic freedom as long as we work within the boundaries of what Peter and Fran want. It’s their film, and we’re hired to do a specific job to help them reach a specific vision. If Peter says “hmm.. try this” and you try it and it doesn’t work, you can tell him that and he’ll work with you. But if he says “make Gollum climb this rock and look creepy” and you say “How about if he sings a showtune and bounds to this rock and gives his master a flower instead?” He’ll probably say “ah.. no.”

CGC: How close is Weta’s actual interaction with Peter Jackson, concerning technical issues, constraints and creative input?

JS: Peter is an extremely smart person and is able to hold an amazing amount of information in his head. He’s also very easy to work with, and is willing to make changes if something is technically difficult to achieve. However, Peter isn’t really the person that you want to burdon with all those issues. Those types of things fall to the Visual Effects Supervisor, the Digital Effects Supervisor, and the Animation Director. They’re the ones who have the technical understanding to determine a particular path we should take, and to decide when something is too difficult to achieve and whether or not we should bring it up with Peter. As for the creative input, everything we do has to be approved by Peter. So in that case, we work extremely close with him to determine the look and the feel of every shot.

CGC: Can you give us a breakdown of the shots you worked on?

JS: Unfortunately, I can’t give a breakdown of what shots I did for the second film yet, as it’s not been released… which is unfortunate, because that’s where I did most of my shot work. On the first film I was focused mainly on pipeline work and setting up animation rigs. What that means is that I was the point person for deciding how the animators were going to interact with the creatures they had to animate, and I got to design the system for generating all those controls and structures. Once that system was in place and running, Randy Cook (the animation director) decided to give me a shot in the animation department (probably because I begged him a few billion times). So I got to start out with some of the most basic of animation tasks, namely the Cave Troll’s chain. In some shots the animation was dynamically generated, and in others it was keyframed.

After that I was able to move onto a more interesting creature, the Watcher in the Water. He as a lot of fun to animate, although difficult with all those tentacles and fingers moving around. Two shots that I worked on for the Watcher stayed in the film, one of which had a digital double in it so I was able to actually do some human animation (sweeeet).
After the Watcher I went back to animate a similar type of effect to the Troll chain.. the Balrog Whip. All of the whip shots were animated by hand, and I ended up doing 4 or 5 of them (namely the shot where the whip comes up to strike Gandalf, and the shot where it pulls him off the ledge).
At that point I was moved over temporarily to the Balrog team to help out with the Eye of Sauron and with the Balrog smoke and fire.

Film 2 was a lot more exciting for me as I spent most of my time animating Gollum, and I really look forward to the film coming out so we can start talking about those shots.

CGC: Any interesting anecdotes to share with our readers?

JS: There are so many things that happen, it’s tough to really boil them down into a few anecdotes. Part of the joy of working at Weta is the fact that there are so many things to do in New Zealand, so many adventures to have. I’ve spent much of the time having amazing travels with friends doing things like black water rafting, snowboarding, paintball, driving on the left hand side of the road, etc etc. The best thing to do is corner me at a trade show or conference and I’ll give you some stories there. That way there’s nothing in print to incriminate me in the future. <grin>

CGC: Before working on LOTR or even hearing about the production, were you a LOTR/Tolkien fan?

JS: I had read the Hobbit when I was a child, but honestly I didn’t know that much about the Lord of the Rings. So when I got the job I bought the three books and set out to read them so I could understand what I was getting myself into. I finished all three and thought to myself: “Right. Okay. So there’s a hobbit. Or four. And a guy named Gandalf (I remembered Gandalf from the Hobbit). And this Strider/Aragorn/Elessar fellow. And some elves. Oh yeah, and that nasty creature named Gollum. Oh! And a dwarf and some other kinds of elves! Yeah, and ah.. men! And.. urhmm.. that ring! And they have to take it back to where it was made cuz the evil guy is reeeeally evil. Okay. So what happened again?” So I started to re-read it, and by the time I got halfway through the second book I felt like my entire life was Lord of the Rings since I was working on the show and reading it and seeing all the artwork, and I figured that I’d rather wait for the movie to come out, so I stopped reading it. However, that was three years ago, and now I know the stories so much better.. I’m actually interested in picking it up again. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just wait for all three movies to come out.

CGC: How much artistic freedom are you allowed to contribute to the films, and in what capacity?

JS: That’s a real interesting question. We’re actually allowed quite a bit of artistic freedom as long as we work within the boundaries of what Peter and Fran want. It’s their film, and we’re hired to do a specific job to help them reach a specific vision. If Peter says “hmm.. try this” and you try it and it doesn’t work, you can tell him that and he’ll work with you. But if he says “make Gollum climb this rock and look creepy” and you say “How about if he sings a showtune and bounds to this rock and gives his master a flower instead?” He’ll probably say “ah.. no.”

CGC: How close is Weta’s actual interaction with Peter Jackson, concerning technical issues, constraints and creative input?

JS: Peter is an extremely smart person and is able to hold an amazing amount of information in his head. He’s also very easy to work with, and is willing to make changes if something is technically difficult to achieve. However, Peter isn’t really the person that you want to burdon with all those issues. Those types of things fall to the Visual Effects Supervisor, the Digital Effects Supervisor, and the Animation Director. They’re the ones who have the technical understanding to determine a particular path we should take, and to decide when something is too difficult to achieve and whether or not we should bring it up with Peter. As for the creative input, everything we do has to be approved by Peter. So in that case, we work extremely close with him to determine the look and the feel of every shot.

CGC: Can you give us a breakdown of the shots you worked on?

JS: Unfortunately, I can’t give a breakdown of what shots I did for the second film yet, as it’s not been released… which is unfortunate, because that’s where I did most of my shot work. On the first film I was focused mainly on pipeline work and setting up animation rigs. What that means is that I was the point person for deciding how the animators were going to interact with the creatures they had to animate, and I got to design the system for generating all those controls and structures. Once that system was in place and running, Randy Cook (the animation director) decided to give me a shot in the animation department (probably because I begged him a few billion times). So I got to start out with some of the most basic of animation tasks, namely the Cave Troll’s chain. In some shots the animation was dynamically generated, and in others it was keyframed.

After that I was able to move onto a more interesting creature, the Watcher in the Water. He as a lot of fun to animate, although difficult with all those tentacles and fingers moving around. Two shots that I worked on for the Watcher stayed in the film, one of which had a digital double in it so I was able to actually do some human animation (sweeeet).
After the Watcher I went back to animate a similar type of effect to the Troll chain.. the Balrog Whip. All of the whip shots were animated by hand, and I ended up doing 4 or 5 of them (namely the shot where the whip comes up to strike Gandalf, and the shot where it pulls him off the ledge).
At that point I was moved over temporarily to the Balrog team to help out with the Eye of Sauron and with the Balrog smoke and fire.

Film 2 was a lot more exciting for me as I spent most of my time animating Gollum, and I really look forward to the film coming out so we can start talking about those shots.


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