Check out www.VFXRates.com.
Episode 122 — Brandon Jarratt — Disney Technical Director
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 122! I’m speaking with Brandon Jarratt from Disney. He is a Technical Director — and also an Academy Award Winner. This is going to be fun! We talked about a lot of cool stuff: how he carved out his career straight to Disney and bypassed some of the steps; as well as how he managed to avoid being pigeonholed and have a lot of success.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[-1:26:37] I have some Free Training out at the moment: www.allanmckay.com/decay. It’s only available for a couple more days, until January 12th.
[-1:25:54] I just started another 90-Day Year, for myself and my team. We have a lot of cool guides coming out, including one for Computer Hardware Guide on understanding the ins and outs of buying new systems for your specialty.
[-1:24:06] Check out the Productive Artist e-book: www.allanmckay.com/productiveartist. All of this is free.
[-1:23:54] I hope you enjoyed the Best Year Yet Bootcamp in December: www.allanmckay.com/bestyearyet/. There will be another one coming up in 2018.
[-1:21:30] Thank you to everyone for your emails! I love seeing all the inspiring work you’ve been doing — and will do my best to respond. Please feel free to email with any ideas at: email@example.com.
INTERVIEW WITH BRANDON JARRATT
Brandon Jarratt is a Technical Director at Walt Disney Studios. He has worked on big budget features like Moana, Big Hero 6, Zootopia. He is currently working on Wreck-It Ralph 2.
Upon receiving his degree in Computer Science from the Texas A&M University, Brandon studied CG animation at the University’s Visualization Lab. In 2012, he worked as a TD Intern at the Walt Disney Studios; and soon after finishing his Masters Degree, he was offered the job of a Technical Director.
In this Episode, Brandon discusses the balance between technology and art in visual effects — and the additional skills one needs to break into the industry as a TD.
Brandon Jarratt on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm6769255/
Brandon Jarratt’s Website: http://www.brandonjarratt.com
Brandon Jarratt on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/bjarratt
Brandon Jarratt’s Profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brandonjarratt/
Brandon Jarratt on Twitter: @bjarratt
Brandon Jarratt’s at Esri UC 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOY3LY688QI
[-1:20:20] Brandon: Howdy! My name is Brandon Jarratt. I’m a General Technical Director at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA.
[-1:20:12] Allan: Awesome, man! Thanks for taking the time to do this. I’d love to chat about how you got started. Did you always want to work in film or was it something you discovered later on?
Brandon: I definitely fall in the later category. I saw Toy Story in a movie theatre as a kid and that was the moment when I knew that I wanted to work not only in animation but in CG animation in particular. I was always interested in computers. I built a lot of my own PC’s as a kid and in college. I enjoyed the technical / computer side. When I saw they made an animated movie with a computer, [I thought] “How do I get into that?” That was where it started for me. I was vaguely aware of other CG effects before but Toy Story was the big flag for me.
[-1:18:54] Allan: That’s really cool! Was it a clear path for you? Did you just grab Photoshop and started rocking out?
Brandon: It was definitely a “How do I get into this?” When I was in middle school, I got a copy of Bryce 4. (Don’t worry I have a copy of Poser too.) I played around with those just [to learn] the basics, so that I could understand the software that was out there. From a career perspective, it was: “This is what I want to do. Are there programs or places that have a focus in that area? Is there a way I can get a foot in the door?” I was trying to think about that. I was trying to do this 2-pronged approach: I had this interest in computers so I took classes in high school (computer repair and web design) but I was also thinking about art. I was really into filmmaking as well as computers, so I tried to do a bit of both.
I grew up in central Texas. There wasn’t a ton of options for me in terms of studios or VFX houses. There weren’t a lot of professional resources. I had to think about what I could focus on immediately. Fortunately, there was one class in high school in which we did animation with Cinema 4D. The swiveling screen iMac was the first Mac I got to use. I got to do a state-wide competition where we had a few hours to make a CG short. It was fun to do that in a competitive environment! That was a good opportunity to get things started.
[-1:14:10] Allan: I love that you started to branch out with whatever resources and tools were available. When it came to graduating, what was the next step for you?
Brandon: I finished high school in 2006. I applied to several schools but decided to go to Texas A&M University partly because my parents went there. It was a state school so it was cheaper. They also had a Masters Program, the Vis Lab. That program has a pretty long history in the industry. Tim McLaughlin who is the Head of Department of Visualization used to be at ILM. It’s a decently well connected program. I could go and study and then maybe get into the grad program. Getting into the Vis Lab — at least when I was there — I could either do the more artistic route (through the College of Architecture and Environmental Design Program) or I could go study Computer Science. That was the more technical route into Vis Lab.
[-1:10:39] Allan: I think that’s the big advantage there. If you have people pressuring you to go get “a real job”, VFX isn’t a typical route. Computer Science is a good step in case you wanted to exit out into the real world and you could have that to fall back on.
Brandon: I feel like it’s easier to go one way than the other. I know all about animating characters, but what can I do in manufacturing?
[-1:09:09] Allan: At that point, did you have a good understanding of the industry and that there are technical roles?
Brandon: When I started my undergraduate, I didn’t have that depth of knowledge. But as I went through my Computer Science degree, every time the Vis Lab put on a lecture or presentation, I went. And that’s how I gained that knowledge. I talked to the people who came to visit: How does this work? Who does what job? As I did that, I realized that the TD role not only fit my technical know-how but also in terms of the work experience. In high school, I worked for the Acer computer company doing computer repair and software development. At A&M, I worked at the computer help desk so I got my customer service experience. It exposed me to the [different] temperament people have. It taught me a lot of patience, as a college student, and taught me some good bedside manner when dealing with artists. Those were the soft side of what I do: How do I relate to and help people?
[-1:05:58] Allan: I think that’s such a critical thing too. At the end of the day, being able to do the job is great. But [working] with a team is much more important to the longevity of your career. Having hard and soft skills is critical. From that point, did you go directly into Disney?
Brandon: Yeah, so I finished my Computer Science degree. There was a chunk in my degree plan [for which] I took dark room photography and film history, and life drawing. I wanted to generate enough material for my portfolio and exercise that part of my brain. Doing those other courses helped me get connected with the professors and some of the staff. It helped round out my education. When it came time to apply for grad school, they were already familiar with my name. I had a pretty good idea about what they were looking for. Fortunately, I got accepted into the Vis Lab. And that’s where my specific CG education came in. In my undergrad, I took the classical computer graphics stuff. The Vis Lab has focuses on animation and visual effects industry. But it also allows you to pursue the things you’re interested in: It’s any kind of visualization! You can pursue anything in that environment.
The first semester in grad school, I took a generative art class which was really interesting. My professor Philip Galanter joked at the beginning that our projects could be anything, as long as they followed the rules of art procedures. I took him at his word and my final project for that class was a dance. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) was a dancer. I collaborated with her and her dance company to choreograph this piece based on a little algorithm I’d come up with. That was the coolest thing I’ve gotten to work on! That’s an example of stuff you could work on.
[-1:00:21] Allan: What was the final output for that?
Brandon: We made a video and live performance of the dance. We did a showcase. The neat thing about it was that the two performances weren’t alike. It was super fun to have an unusual project for a CG school.
[-59:14] Allan: What was the next step after your graduation?
Brandon: I can’t even get to my graduation. My first step was while I was still a grad student. There is a Summer Industry Course [for which the school] hooks up with different animation studios. The people from those studios come and help students to make a 30-second animated short. In the summer of 2011, I was lucky enough that the Walt Disney Studios was the partner. Each one of us was assigned a role. I was doing the pipeline and the technical part. That first week was all about the pipeline and I got to meet Hank Driskill who is a Supervisor at Disney and [now] my boss on several films. I got to meet and work with him personally. The Summer Industry course was my foot in the door and it allowed to stay connected with them after. I took that seriously and every couple of months I tried to follow-up. That’s one of the things I found odd is how often I tell people to keep in touch — or ask me a question — but they don’t. I remember that feeling, maybe I was bothering somebody. I promise: These are nice, reasonable people. Most people won’t respond to you negatively.
[-55:18] Allan: I think it’s more of an internal thing rather than being afraid. Some people are lazy, other people are afraid of rejection. There is nothing more important than being able to network and keeping these relationships alive until they flourish into employment.
Brandon: Absolutely! An email from somebody every 3-6 months is not going to annoy me.
So, yeah, I got connected to Disney through the Summer Industry Course, then went on to finish my thesis and grad school stuff. The next summer in 2012, I applied and got the TD intern position. I got to come [to LA] for the first time and that was amazing.
[-53:09] Allan: Was Burbank everything was you hoped to be?
Brandon: I drove from Texas because I knew that LA was all about driving. It was worth it because the next day, I got to drive by the studio.
[-52:01] Allan: It’s one of those bookmarks in your journey. What was it like on your first day?
Brandon: I couldn’t believe it. I was pinching myself all day. That summer, they were finishing on the first Wreck-It Ralph. It was the first time I saw how a CG animated feature was actually made. I was looking at Ralph’s rig, seeing inside the Maya sessions, all this stuff behind the scenes. I got to meet with the other interns. We were making a short as part of the program so everyone was working for the common goal. What made our project unusual was that it was both 2D and CG. It was really cool to meet these people from different schools and from different countries. I was looking at their reels and thinking, “Wow, how did I get here?” I also felt like the old man of the group because I was the only grad student.
[-48:19] Allan: Going from there, how long did the internship go?
Brandon: The internship was 8 weeks and in between that I was doing my own 2D assignments. Once that was over, I went back to school and finished my grad school stuff, defended my thesis, got married and then got a job offer for Disney’s Trainee Program — all over the period of 4 months. It was a very busy fall of 2012.
It’s a really competitive world out there. I also applied at DreamWorks for their entry TD Trainee Program, and I had a few interviews with them. But I didn’t have any interviews with Disney. I was also fortunate to get an offer from DreamWorks. Even with an entry level position, it’s a okay to ask for more if you have some leverage. Disney offered me their Trainee Position. I’d said, “I’d already been an intern, is there any way you can sweeten the deal for me?” They came back with a TD offer, so I didn’t have to go through the Trainee Program. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It doesn’t mean they’re going to shoot you down immediately. I was just fortunate to have both of those offers in hand.
[-43:40] Allan: You’re right: At the end of the day, it’s a business. We all have to make a living. I like the fact that it didn’t need to be just financial. That’s the big mistake people make. In the background, the money happens anyway. It’s more about who is going to give you a better career path.
Brandon: I was just focusing on security. It’s a hard thing in this industry. At that point in time, if I could get closer to knowing I would be there — I would go for that for sure.
[-41:48] Allan: So at that point, you jumped on the Big Hero 6? Was that the big project you did when you started?
Brandon: Yes, it was. That movie is always going to be really special to me because it was the first one I got to work on.
[-41:29] Allan: I like that movie! It captured San Francisco so well. What was it like, for you, working on a massive feature film and getting to collaborate with these people who had a vast amount of knowledge?
Brandon: It was incredible! [During] the first 6 months of being an Assistant TD, you’re just a sponge: you’re just absorbing every scrap of information, every meeting. That’s how the TD Program is set up:
– You go through the entire pipeline.
– You start working on assets, learning about modeling;
– You go through the shot production.
– You get to meet a lot of people and learn how they work and communicate.
By getting there early, I was paired up with the associate Tech Supervisor Brett Achorn. He and I worked together on building the city. I got to travel up to San Francisco and meet with a Pixar guy who had set up their CityEngine workflow for Cars 2 when they first used it. I got to do a bike tour of the city. Along with other stuff, I got to do the CityEngine stuff. So that was really awesome too, to be part of that major thing. When they showed us the storyboards, we laughed because we had no idea how we were going to figure it out.
[-37:39] Allan: What’s your opinion of CityEngine? Do you find it pretty intuitive?
Brandon: We were working Version 2012 at the time. There are some things that are nice and easy to use, but we were not using it for what it was intended for, always. The guys on the development team were easy to get a hold of and they answered our questions. But that version of it perhaps was less stable than we wanted. Sometimes it took some shoehorning of the data to get things how we wanted. And that was a Java Python base at the time. Not all the code we wrote jived with it. But in terms of the rules of constructing a building, [for example], I think that made perfect sense. Their whole CG rule system is pretty neat. It allowed us to do a lot of cool things with the buildings from a library of stuff.
[-36:08] Allan: With that project, what do you think your biggest contributions were?
Brandon: We came up with the workflow. Brett had the idea to publish the buildings as a Particles System which allowed us to assemble the building in space. In order to create the pieces, he wrote this tool called Image Chopper. I think one of the things that I did was that I wrote a script that assembled a CG rule file from these tiles. So you could go from a drawing and define what your tiles looked like; and then you exported it out with this Python script and opened it up inside of CityEngine — and you see this drawing reconstructed in 3D. Before I did that, it would take a day to hand-write the CG rule file. That allowed us to generate a whole library of buildings a lot quicker.
[-34:22] Allan: I love that! What was the next project you went onto? Did you seamlessly move onto an ADT to a TD?
Brandon: Yes, at the end of Big Hero 6, I was fortunate to be promoted to a TD along with other ADT’s. There were four of us together. We all got to move up. From that point, I started working on a short Frozen Fever. I think it was released in front of the live action Cinderella film a few years back. And that was fun too because I didn’t work on the original Frozen. It was also a test bed for converting assets. Frozen was made with Renderman. During Hero 6, we transitioned into Hyperion which is our in-house GI renderer. We needed new material and shader. Frozen Fever was our first attempt at converting. That was an important step for us. I was only on that for a couple of months because I got pulled onto Zootopia because they needed to do more city building work. (There was a pretty change in the story: The bunny cop became the protagonist of the film and she went on a ride through this city.)
[-31:19] Allan: For you, do you find that exploring some tools that are special may give you a chance tostand out [because] you can be the go-to person?
Brandon: It’s got its advantages and disadvantages. You could get pigeonholed as the CityEngine guy. On the one hand, it’s useful. If they need that kind of work, you’re the person they go to. If they don’t need that kind of work — but that’s the only thing you know how to do — you probably aren’t going to be working a lot. They tried to balance my work on Zootopia with CityEngine and learning a new department. But it was definitely the main reason I was pulled over. The challenges for Zootopia were different. With Hero 6, we were starting with a real city data, an actual geography of a real place. Zootopia is completely fictional. There is no real world data to go on. It was interesting to tackle that challenge. I was put in charge of figuring that out — which was my second feature film ever! That was wild! It was a big milestone of my career. It still makes me scratch my head. I can’t believe they picked me to do this. It was incredible!
[-27:28] Allan: What were some of the challenges in that particular area?
Brandon: Well, each of the districts are meant to reflect a different animal climate. I had to come up with different rules for street patterns. That was a time consuming process. I would spray down the patterns and show that to the Art Directors and they would give me some notes. I learned more what a life of an artist was. There were a couple of months I was just grinding on that project, basically playing with a Lego set. As a TD, you don’t always get to work on something that ends up on the screen. [But with this], I could point to that train ride sequence and say, “I worked on that!” The pressure of that was a big challenge for me. I wasn’t used to doing the type of work people were going to end up seeing.
Technically, in terms of building the city, it was easier than Big Hero 6 because we were working with a different scale. But on Zootopia, we were plopping down whole buildings down because we had shapes that didn’t repeat very well. The challenge was: How do we get a good distribution that looks good but that doesn’t have a good repetition? We added some material variation. Plus, when you’re going on a train really fast, you can get away with some things.
[-23:39] Allan: Did you do any L-shapes / systems to make them different?
Brandon: Definitely! In the main plaza, the Art Directors were asking for leaf-shaped patterns. That fits in perfectly with these L systems. You end up with these streets that look like branches or leaves. Just playing with different CityEngine rules and trying different things to get a certain look was a lot of fun.
[-22:21] Allan: Typically, what’s the turnaround from start to finish for a feature film at Disney? During the creative phase, it is 3 years?
Brandon: I wish it were 3 years! It depends on the project and it depends on the changes that happen in the story. Since I’ve been here, every film has had big changes to the story fairly late into production (with exception of Moana), which made us create changes in less than a year! It’s difficult when you have to burn that hot for any amount of time. The typical goal was 18 months. When things are ready, people can crank them out. On the ideal schedule, we’d like to take 12-18 months but we aren’t always on the ideal schedule.
[-20:17] Allan: That’s pretty impressive though! I’ve got friends who are at Pixar. Production is typically a lot longer. It’s pretty impressive you’re able to crank it out that fast.
Brandon: When I say 18 months for shot production, I mean: Full crew rolled on, working with them at the same time. I think 2-3 years in terms of different people working on the movie. But the shorter time period has been for cranking out the shots. Everybody always would like more time. The Studio has taken active steps to allow us more time.
[-18:22] Allan: I think having less time can be a blessing. You’re more likely to jump to making the right decision. As soon as you’re in crunch time, decisions happen much faster. What’s that Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”? What’s the typical headcount for a feature film?
Brandon: People roll on and off in phases, depending on which departments are working on a film. Even if people aren’t strictly assigned to work on a show, they’re always in the building, working on this or that. Especially as TD’s, even if we’re cast to work on a show, we’re always helping other people. It’s in the 100’s at the peak headcount. I’m not a production manager though, so I can’t give you the exact count.
[-16:14] Allan: Oh, and by the way, did you get an Oscar for Zootopia?
Brandon: Yes, we did. We got an Oscar for the Best Animated Feature. Which was amazing! Coming off of Big Hero 6 — which also won an Oscar — it cemented in our minds that Disney is back and we’re making great feature films. I’m proud of everything I’ve worked on, not just in terms of visual content. I think we’re also putting positive stories out in the world. Whatever money the movie makes, that’s all fine. But if I wasn’t satisfied with the sort of movies we were making, I’d be less satisfied with my job. I’ve been really fortunate that these films have been a positive impact on the world.
[-14:27] Allan: Absolutely! In the 2000s it felt like animated features were money making machines. But here, you actually have this massive studio that has been more focused on storytelling and where artist can focus on stories. You can relate or be moved by them.
Brandon: Yes, story is king. Which is why it is sometimes a headache to make our movies. It changes things and everyone has to work a little hard to have it end up on the screen.
[-12:39] Allan: On Moana, what were the tasks you were focusing on? What were some of the challenges on that?
Brandon: My supervisors were very cognizant of to not have me be pigeonholed as the CityEngine guy. There was no CityEngine in Moana. They tried to branch me out so I worked mostly with the lighting department which, on that movie, meant dealing with lots of water. We had a brand new water pipeline. We’d never done water at that scale in CG before. In fact, the last time we’d done CG water, they were one-off shots. Seventy percent of Moana is near or on the water. So we had this auto boat wake script. We wanted to generate the wakes as quickly as possible. That took a long time for it to work, but when it did, it saved us a lot of time. We had this whole caching pipeline set up. When lighting was rendering their stuff, they’re generating a level set for this water that Hyperion was using. I got to learn a lot about the underpinnings of the caching system and what mathematically those things represented.
[-10:10] Allan: How big were some of those level sets? I imagine they’re pretty big because they’re essentially volumes.
Brandon: Yes. Normally, our fastest, quickest access disks are in the temp area where FX is generating a lot of the stuff. We had a temp publish area where FX would write these things out because they had the highest volumes and had the fastest access times
[-09:29] Allan: Plus, you wanted to keep off the network!
Brandon: Exactly! Things like that, challenges you don’t expect: Optimizing for network access and disk speed time and storing the data in certain location makes a huge difference. We’re talking terabytes for some of these shots. We had some large volume data chunks for Big Hero 6 as well. At that point, those were the largest effects caches we had done — and they were dwarfed by the stuff we were doing for Moana. But I would have to go back and look to tell you exact sized. There were terabytes and terabytes; and when the image was approved, we had to go back and delete the cache data. That was definitely a challenge. The water in Moana: Imagine you have a ground plain and it’s constantly moving. We were extremely vertical because of the way the schedule stacked out. Lighting is trying to do some renders while animation is still doing some tweaks on the performances — and those have an effect on the water levels. So we had to come up with a whole new way of how departments talked to each other. We had to get a handle on that as soon as we could. One hundred percent water took most of my time.
[-06:47] Allan: It looks great! I haven’t seen the film but I was flying to Europe and my fiance was watching at it on her screen. Right now, you’re working on Wreck-It Ralph 2. When is that coming out?
Brandon: I know it’s November of 2018. It was originally supposed to come out in March but it got pushed — which made everyone breath a sigh of relief.
[-06:04] Allan: Coding is a big part of your job. How does that help you and other artists?
Brandon: I’m biased. I have a Computer Science degree. Learning to code really helps you learn how to solve problems. Just thinking about things in steps, breaking things down in to manageable chunks — which is what coding is all about — how you can efficiently attack a challenge. I think it’s a useful way to think about things. Learning about coding and how to structure things is a good skill to have. I know there are artists who have some coding ability and will write utilities for themselves. As TD’s, it makes us a bit nervous. We do our best to interface between the tech and artists sides of things. Coding makes bridging easier. As TD’s, the more we understand the work the artists are doing, the less we’ll be confused by some steps they’re doing. It’s true for them and for us.
[-03:08] Allan: Thanks for taking the time out to chat! It’s been really insightful. Anyone who wants to reach out, where would they find you?
Brandon: I’m less active on social media than I have been in the past. The best bet is to go to my website: www.brandonjarratt.com. Thanks for having it! It’s been a lot of fun.
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Thank you to Brandon for taking time out to chat. I had a lot of fun!
I’ve got a lot of great Episodes coming up:
– The Founder of Dabarti Production Studio;
– A VFX Sup for Atomic Blonde;
– The Creature Lead for Doom.
I’m interested to see what you’re interested to learn or who you would like to have on the Podcast. Please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please review this Episode on iTunes.