Wednesday, November 18th, 2009 | Article by Matt McCorkell
A unique blend of 3d, motion graphics, compositing, and matte painting skills bring Dragos Jieanu’s artwork to life.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? What was your education like?
At a rather early age I developed an affinity for being self educated before anything else. I started drawing around the age of ten. I was fascinated by the Disney movies of course, and I still remember what my first drawing was: a Mickey Mouse figure. It didn’t take long for me to develop a true passion for it, creating my own stories and bringing them to life, at least on paper.
Romania was passing through hard times, it was right after the Revolution, the environment was completely chaotic and everything was changing, from the political to economical structure. In times like those, art was not a priority for anyone. Therefore, choosing a career in this field seemed far from a good choice. Who would hire artists, and what for? The country needed doctors, teachers, and lawyers. My parents wanted me to go for the Medicine School, since it was a safe future career. People can always live without art, but they might not live at all without a doctor.
It seems I have been one of those kids who did stick to their childhood dream though, and I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful feeling it is. Plus, it keeps that kid very much alive still.
Did you originally intend to become an architect? Or was it the closest thing to a CG art school in your area?
Oh no, I did not intend to become an architect. But sometimes you have to step off the main road just a little bit. After I turned 18 and graduated high school, I realized I had to choose my path in life. (Now, that’s a shocker huh?)
People tend to make the same old mistake, following a pattern: They choose their parents’ path. Have I realized it was a mistake, or was I simply too stubborn, or both, I might not ever know for certain, but I do know I said no to Med school, I said no to becoming a Math teacher – yes, parents usually have a backup option too – but hey, I’m not a pattern follower, I make my own.
My folks wouldn’t let me go to Art school though, so I had to pick a path in the middle, step off my main road, and I opted for Architecture. It was a safer career direction, satisfying enough for everyone, a safe bet. I went for “Ion Mincu”, the best Architecture school in Bucharest.
As for CG schools, there were none, not in Romania, not in the entire Eastern Europe. Most people didn’t even know what CG meant.
Was there a particular school that you attended for art and computer graphics? Did the University of Architecture Ion Mincu provide you with the necessary skills to become a cg artist?
Architecture was cool, but I never got used to dealing with rules and rigid teachers. Sometimes school diminishes your potential with subjective things and the rejection of individual perspectives. I remember I once got an F because I didn’t use plants for my interior project… As for the CG development, not a chance. It took me 2 years to convince them to accept a project rendered in 3DMax and printed. My teachers had this antipathy towards computer based architecture. Held captive by the pen, and belittled by it.
Old habits die hard indeed.
“…there’s a million things I could express artistically in one painting, as opposed to losing my voice in verbal attempts.”
On your site you mention that your interest in CG began with Jurassic Park; a lot of things have changed in visual effects over the years since the movies release. Are you still impressed by visual effects in movies or has your appreciation of CG diminished as you’ve developed as an artist?
Jurassic Park was indeed my first glimpse into the CG industry and I fell in love. I am still impressed by what they accomplished with it, it was a journey of discovery, creating new technologies, transforming old ones and ushering filmmaking into the 21st Century. For me, Art is a hobby, it’s a state of mind, a language I’ve developed. I’ve always seen it as a handicap since I’d rather express myself through imagery than spoken language, but in the end I got used to the idea that you can’t have it all. In fact, there’s a million things I could express artistically in one painting, as opposed to losing my voice in verbal attempts. It keeps becoming a part of who I am, something I embrace and absorb, and less of a handicap as I used to see it.
I don’t think I am as impressed by the VFX in movies nowadays, as I was back then. The impact is not as high, but I can still tell what’s impressive when i see it. Just on a more professional level. One thing changed for sure when I got my first job.
I went to one of the major TV stations in Romania, Antena1, to see if they could hire me. At first, they politely asked me to go home… The second time the bodyguards almost threw me out, and the third time I managed to bypass them and sneak into the Promo division. As you can see, I was very determined. There was this guy who gave me a test for a well known TV show. Later on, I found out that he was the boss.
So I went home, really happy and excited, and started working on this one. I borrowed 2 computers from my friends and began animating. Truth be told….I sucked big time. I’m not afraid to admit it. The show was about romance and love and I did some crappy animations with hearts on fire. After 3 days of working day and night, I presented my work to this guy and he was pretty impressed, not by my artistic vision, but by my perseverance.
When you hit the big wall of Production you realize how naive you were, thinking you could do Starwars on your home computer, just because you got what it takes – skills and vision. I am sure there’s still people out there who believe it is possible, which is good in a way, it helps you to pursue a dream. I salute their ambition but sooner or later they will come to their senses.
Everything the “big boys” do (as I used to call the ILM, WETA, DD and so on) is directly related to the team they have. That’s why it’s called CG Industry.
Still impressed [with Jurassic Park]? Sure, but in the same time I’m more aware that you need a whole army to achieve such performances.
“I was more interested in learning the process and doing a great job as an employee, rather than keep the hobby alive.”
How long have you been working in the cg industry? Do you still work on digital paintings for yourself? or has client work taken over your time as an artist?
I think 10 years have passed since my first job.
In the beginning stage of my career, I didn’t focus on my personal work as much as before, I was more interested in learning the process and doing a great job as an employee, rather than keep the hobby alive. I wanted to be great, not just good at what I do, which led to neglecting my hobbies as an artist. I channeled all my resources into art as a career.
I had some great teachers, most of them now working for big companies in the US or Canada. I started doing personal projects to develop and improve my skills. Going back to drawing for myself had a nice feeling. It was satisfying on a personal level, as opposed to the
career work. After winning a few awards I thought to myself, I should spend more time on personal imagery. Truth be told, if I wouldn’t have gotten any attention or appreciation of my works, I would have probably dropped it. But people encouraged me to keep creating and I’m grateful for that.
Your resume includes work that was accomplished using 3d, matte painting, compositing, and motion graphics. It’s rare to find artists that have experience in so many different disciplines, how did you pick up these skills? Did one lead to another?
I think it’s a matter of self insurance. This field is so new that you cannot be sure if your domain will still be available in the long run. So many things have changed In the past few years, people lost their jobs because of this continuous digital development. I’m aware that in the end all that matters is your artistic skill, but keeping an open mind is the key.
For example, you could easily get a job in the game industry 10-15 years ago as a pixel painter, and the people who focused only on this technique found it very hard to switch and adapt to the 3d era.
I’ve seen new technologies develop every year, and the trend is to be able to use more of your artistic skills rather than technical ones. In the future, the way I picture it, pulling vertices will be as ancient as painting pixels.
For me, learning these different fields was a consequence of my random jobs. I worked in television doing broadcast graphics for 4 years, then switched to movies and commercials, doing specific tasks, from the shading/lighting department to animation, compositing and so on. Did this random diversity help me? I think it did.
I mostly worked in small companies, 20-30 people max, and when it comes to a small team , you are usually required to be a generalist rather than a specialist. The reason why I opted for this kind of set-up was my phobia of corporations. I’ve had it since I visited a big CG company, and I have seen hundreds of people gathered into cubicles, each one doing his own specific tasks. That image made me think of the bees in a honeycomb, or the ants in an ant-hill, and I said to myself that I will never end up in a place like that, no matter what. But that’s a thing we all fear I guess, the fear of losing our sense of individuality and becoming just another ant in the big farm, programmed to perform the same specific assigned task day after day. Some can adapt to that structure and go with the flow, I simply can’t and won’t.
I used to think that corporations are killing creativity, but I’ve recently seen lots of books from the big VFX companies and they show this cool team play, sculptors, animators, painters, all working together on set, building the perfect shot. I don’t know when this went wrong, with the cubicals and so on, but lately I see many attitude changes from these corporations to recreate the perfect environment for artists. They no longer see artists as accountants.
Do you prefer one part of the creative process over another?
I do have a favorite process, but each process has many directions. For example, I enjoy working as a matte painter but I don’t like classical set extensions or element removals. I enjoy working on establishing shots, even animating them. The same with modeling, I don’t like character modeling, but I do enjoy hard surface modeling or complete scenery. I usually get bored if I have to do the same task every day. I’d rather do different types of tasks. That’s why I guess matte painting is my favorite because it involves modeling, texturing, lighting, animation, rendering, painting and compositing. You can’t get bored working on a shot like that.
“…sooner or later you’ll have to switch to another job, simply because the only thing you chose to excel at became a new generation software’s job.”
Since you were the CEO over at Hotshots VFX, did the business side present any challenges as an artist?
Mixing business with art is a tough call, practically reducing your spare time to zero. When you’re not working on a project, you’re doing invoices and plan budgets. I started HotShots VFX 5 years ago and I decided to go on my own.
Working independently is cool, it offers flexibility, a wide array of choices. People think you are your own boss though, which is entirely wrong. You always have a boss in your client. When you are your own business manager it’s not that bad. When you’re an employee you only have one boss, which is something you can cope with quite easily. In a company there are many bosses, and they keep on changing. It doesn’t give you the time to know your boss and how to handle him.
There are pro’s and con’s. In the end I think it’s a matter of choice. It’s like being married or single: married and bored or single and lonely:) It all comes down to choosing the lesser evil.
What led you to move to Amsterdam for work at INDG?
Are you kidding? No, seriously, it’s a great city. One of the best in Europe. I first visited it while shooting a music video for a well known Romanian DJ. I instantly fell in love with this place . Besides the depressing weather, everything else was an artist’s dream come true. People gathering in parks, squares, painting, singing, bicycles all around, boats, parties, beautiful girls and so on. They’re a happy nation, I remember waking up at 7AM going for my coffee. When I opened up the window I came to face this very cloudy, all shades of gray weather, despite of which, people were riding their bikes, just smiling and whistling.
INDG was hiring, and it was located in the heart of Amsterdam. I paid them a visit and loved the place. Had lots of fun there, met some amazing artists and made some good friends. I loved the fact that they had such diverse projects, web design, architectural viz, commercials, illustrations, concept art, you name it. One of the heaviest projects was the dutch airforce website: www.luchtmacht-experience.nl . (you can pick up images from here but just from the first page, the concepts belong to another colleague.)
There were a lot of great artists on the project team. I was in charge of projection painting, camera projection and animation for the locations. We visited lots of airbases in order to gather reference material. It was a really fun project.
Do you have any advice for aspiring cg artists?
Learn the basics, they never change: composition, colors, photography, animation etc. The computer is just a tool, don’t get caught in the technical details. Constantly try to upgrade your skills, don’t get satisfied simply by doing your task and then go home, because you’ll never be able to improve performance if you don’t pursue it. You’ll have to learn, study, develop and improve your art throughout your entire life…
What should students who want to become matte painters do to make their reels feel less flat?
Matte painting has entered the 3D era. Most of the old school painters switched to 3d software. If 10 years ago you only needed painting skills, now a 3D software is a must, therefore good knowledge of said software is also required. Call it a necessary evil, if you will. Lately you’re also required to do compositing by yourself as well. Knowing different fields will help your skill development a lot.
Should cg artists try to become more knowledgeable in a variety of fields? Would it be better for most people to pick one thing to excel at?
If I were you, I would go for specialization if were looking for a job in a big company, and generalist if I was fond of small companies. Even if you choose the generalist route you should still have a main skill. It’s a matter of self preservation. If you become the best modeler but you neglect all the other fields. One day you might regret it since technology is developing fast, and sooner or later you’ll have to switch to another job, simply because the only thing you chose to excel at became a new generation software’s job.