Does Science Make You a Better Supervisor?

Introduction:

So after a while of working in the industry, I’ve had the pleasure of working under some interesting supervisors under a few different productions.

This question has sat with me a bit: “Does a background in science make you a better supervisor or lead in the studio?”

I think there is a good argument to be made that you can’t be a good supervisor if your knowledge is limited to one department or area in 3D graphics. Every supervisor has a different background from where they started in the industry, as well as which departments they oversee. But you also need to at least have a basic to good understanding of other departments as well.

You also need a good understanding of realism, and physics. Along with some TD skills, and scripting experience. Oh, and let's not forget problem solving.

Someone once said to me as well: you can be a great supervisor and an ok artist, or a great artist and an ok supervisor. Sometimes you’ll meet people who are both. I think this statement rings pretty true.

But I do think there are different tools and information you can use to make yourself a more well rounded artist and leader. One of them being having an understanding or a background in science.

For today, we are going to focus on FX supervisors and leads, because I'm not much of an asset, animation, or rigging artist. It’s really not my department to talk about that. So let's get started.

Also please keep in mind these are my observations from working in the industry, and things I've noticed in myself as I’m growing as an artist. As well as tactics I've noticed from the people around me.

What do FX Supervisors Do?

An FX supervisor is responsible for leading a group of artists through a production. They make sure everything the artists produce meet the client’s vision and standard. Then they make sure everything is ready for the client and VFX producer to see, and participate in client reviews.

They mostly oversee fx departments, lighting departments, and composting departments. They give feedback in daily reviews, and depending on the size of the studio, the supervisor might also be involved in working on key shots.

Overall, they are the last line of defense on quality control, oversee shot communication, and still maintain their creativity while leading other artists. While also making sure everything produced is realistic enough. That's a lot to ask for from a single person. Which is why you’ll see more than one in a studio.

But how the hell does science help with this? Or even make their lives easier?

Why Science is an Art

Let’s start with the creative side, because I imagine that’s what a lot of people can connect with.

As an FX artist you’re always asked to make your simulations believable and realistic. If the viewer can't understand the cause and effect of your creation, then good luck. So bringing in reference from reality is always the right idea.

However, sometimes a reference isn’t enough. The reference might be misleading, or not show everything that is happening from the camera angle. So creating an understanding of the hidden details is important. It is also important that if you would like to build something realistically, you are also curious about it at the same time.

Your own curiosity can drive your own research and your enjoyment of your job. The more invested you are in a shot, simulation type, or structure, the more you will learn about. Your knowledge about that particular thing will most likely be at the forefront of your mind, and you’ll get excited every time you’re assigned a task associated with it.

Most things in nature overlap. For example, a lot of things in nature carry reaction-diffusion patterns. Such as shark and squid skin, vegetation, and other vertebrae. So let’s say you are asked to build a growth system at work, in your research you might stumble upon other patterns and growths in nature. So by the end of the day, even though you are building one specific thing, your knowledge base regarding other types of systems has improved. Which might be useful in your next FX build.

It’s very easy now to just use shelf tools, or built in solvers in Houdini to get your work done. This can make your job incredibly repetitive. There have been a few times in my career where I did the exact same thing over and over again for 3 months or more. Which just made my brain turn off, or make me feel underutilized at work. So forming a connection with whatever you are building is very important. That in turn will keep your attention span, and hype you up for the next task.

Even just researching the physical details of how something bounces off different materials or objects will keep your attention span, and also make your interactions look more realistic.

Let’s also mention physics here. Without physics nothing would move correctly, and artists often make movement mistakes in their work. The more you understand your basic forces such as gravity, velocities, drag, turbulence, and others, the better control you will have over your end result. But making constant observations of particular movements is also key as well.

Science also requires you to use mathematics and code. As simulation artists, as we slowly carry on in our career we do mode scripting. Scripting is not a skill learned overtime, and often takes a few years. But by participating in activities that already require it, you can learn it faster. When you learn something in two different ways, it opens your eyes to other pathways to use that tool for. The first time you learn about matrices or vectors it might be overwhelming. But using them in another software or program outside of Houdini might help you understand their purpose more.

Science is all about documenting and observing your findings to prove why something happens the way that it does. So the more reference you can communicate to your team and yourself, the better the end result.

Reference is important in scientific fields because you have to document everything. It’s the field that’s soul industry is to find out how the universe works. It's an answer for everything you need to visually represent something.

In the same way as art, science also makes you appreciate the larger picture of life and is an outlet of deeper understanding.

Now small intermission, I had a buddie of mine make some good points. He's a senior artist so take his word.

He mentioned that as much as its important to learn about scientific concepts as an artist, you also have to increase your own artistic skill. As he put it: " We are not recreating the universe, we are making pleasing visuals. Having the solid footing of the physics is one part of it, but having animation training is just as important." He's right.

So don't narrow your understanding to just physics as a technical artist, but use it as a tool to increase your skills in mathematics, problem solving, and logic.

These ideas are some core values in making sure you enjoy your life in the VFX industry, and stick around for a long time. Often, the longer you are in the industry you can suffer from burnout or lose happiness over the job that you love. Or become frustrated doing the same task over and over again. I would say a happy artist is a good artist. And a happy supervisor is a great one.

Besides that, injecting science into workflow can also be a great brain activity to make your team think differently.

Turn Your Team into Scientists

Scientific research not only involves visualizations, but it also involves reading and proofreading studies, collaboration, and communication.These are also skills that are needed in VFX artists, leads and supervisors.

Part of a supervisor's job is also being a “teacher” everytime a review happens. Depending on the studio you are in, your HOD might also overlap as a supervisor, so this section is pretty applicable to them as well. Often HODs (head of departments), will do learning sessions or check-ins with artists, so they also fall under this “teaching” category.

So how can you get juniors and artists to quickly identify their problems, and proofread their work better? Maybe they need to grasp concepts in a different way.

When you teach your team something, you have to communicate what you would like them to learn effectively. One way you can do this is by understanding your team's learning styles.

I’m sure there have been many supervisors and leads out there who have had an artist under them submit the same thing over and over for dailies. Maybe the build, flipbook, or render has the same issue, and the artist is failing to understand the input. So the shot keeps coming back to review like a broken record. I’ve certainly been that artist before. I’m so sorry Keith.

Maybe you’ve heard the term: visual learner. Most people are visual learners, and if you are in VFX that is definitely preferred. However, everyone processes information differently. There are many different styles of learning:

Auditory and musical learners
Visual and spatial learner
Verbal learner
Logical and mathematical learner
Physical or kinaesthetic learner
Social and interpersonal learner
Solitary and intrapersonal learner

However, the most common are these types:

Visual learners
Auditory learners
Kinesthetic learners
Reading/writing learners

When you work in a studio you get a good mix of learning through Kinesthetics and Visuals. However, I find that studios are pretty lax when it comes to teaching through audio and writing. Usually studios will have their own database for artists to read, but it's not the first thing they gravitate to while learning. New artists fall into that pit of waiting for someone to explain the problem for them. Plus, with the current work from home environment, you can’t count on artists to not be multitasking during a call, or focused on other things.

Making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to a task, is key to keeping a team in order.

“Teaching” a team is a great way to build your communication skills. Everyone interprets things differently, so you’ll quickly learn that you have to be incredibly patient and explain things in different ways. You’ll have to start to adapt your communication and interactions per team.

Science explains something in more than one way. It works with a combination of mathematics, graphics, diagrams, reading, writing, and physical challenge. It forces you to rethink solutions, and think about why something happened. As well as forcing you to be involved in the process, and showcase your results. Is literally every type of learning activity combined into one.

Scientific fields are pretty similar to visual effects as they require a lot of on the job learning, visual demonstrations, and problem solving. However, scientific fields often account for different learning methods, and how students and researchers can develop their intelligence overtime.

There are 4 main progressions of learning in scientific fields:

#1: Memory.
Long term memory is heavily dependent on repeated exposure to the same task. So asking an undergraduate to complete the same task over and over is quite important. They might think it’s hell, but it will help them in the long run.
Training programs often increase long term memory and problem solving. Assessments of short multiple sessions of training are often used.
Making sure topics are interconnected is key to keeping information around in the brain.
In science students and researchers are often asked to show what they’ve learned vs being re-told what they should have learned. This has been proven to be more effective in a learning environment.

#2: Human thinking, learning, and behavior.
Science helps you infuse your world with meaning. This in turn increases attention span and memory.
A combination of graphics and visuals help create a better sense of understanding. Visuals should be graphs or figures. Processes of how to proceed should be stated.
People who engage in multiple activity systems are more likely to succeed, and have a better sense of motivation and difference. These activity systems are created through accounting for the workplace environment, history of the person, culture, role of the person(user, etc), motivations, and complexity of real-life activity. This in turn creates more social bonds.

#3: Developing Expertise.
New students or juniors will often have superficial ways of dealing with an issue, and problem solving skills. While it is noted with senior people in a field that they will have better problem solving, and preserve meaningful patterns in their work. So sharing methods is always advised.
Experts tend to selectively use available information, while juniors process it all at once. This is overall less efficient.

#4: Conceptual Change and Development
A person’s foundational knowledge and conceptual knowledge changes overtime as they age. So restructuring how a person can develop new information in their career, and change their minds is key.
Creating a greater understanding of concepts does not always mean that you have to increase your factual knowledge database. It is more about restructuring what you already know.
It’s more important to learn about the interactive processes rather than individual concepts or forces.
Having multiple ideas of why something is taking place, is often more effective than thinking about how it happened. This leads to more shifts in reasoning and open mindedness.

Already you can probably see some overlap from the two different industries.When combining these methods with the preferred learning method of your peers, the best results are usually achieved.

Bringing Together Your End Results

Completing a production is often similar to writing a scientific paper. The director’s vision is the hypothesis, The final images are the diagrams or visualizations, and scientific papers often have their own pipeline too.

Science at all stages of a production process can help improve the operation. It's not just for simulation artists to work with. We can’t produce physically realistic simulations without working with realistic models and information. So we need our colleagues to understand science as well.

Science can also make you more relatable as a supervisor. Often Supervisors spend a long amount of time at the studio, and are locked away from people in their offices. And with deadlines how they are in VFX, often by the time you get out of work it's already night time. Then your social life becomes your office life, and the never ending work persona starts. So researching topics and the world around you , or continuing your education can help prevent that.

Some of the most interesting supervisors I’ve worked with have been snipers, pilots, biologists, or people who worked in other roles before they went into VFX. Or even just others who were really into race cars. (sorry I mean Formula One..lol) The communication that they were able to achieve was incredible. You didn’t just learn about VFX in their reviews. You learned about them, and how they break down a shot, and ideas that they want incorporated.

So in theory, it's a great tool to make yourself a more rounded person, on top of improving your artistic judgment. See ya in the studio!