Behind the Scenes: Double Negative

Singapour

Double Negative is an award-winning company that specialises in computer animation and visual effects. It has won Visual Effects Society awards for Inception and Sherlock Holmes, and has received BAFTA awards for Inception, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Interstellar. It s established in London, and also operates in Toronto and Singapore.

Stuart Farley, Double Negative’s Head of 3D, gives us insights into Double Negative’s organizational structure and activities. Here’s what he had to say –

History

Double Negative started in Shaftsbury Avenue, just off SOHO in London, with a small team.

As Stuart describes, “I joined them when it hit about 60 people, and it’s grown ever since. We’re roughly around 1,100 – 1,200 people in London, and we have about 260 people in Singapore. We’ve opened a new office in Vancouver, which is growing rapidly. We have a huge amount of work, and operate just like a 24-hour facility.”

Management and Roles

Double Negative has 260 people, with 109 of them as 3D artists. Half of the company’s staff are 3D artists, and the other half are 2D compositors. Aside from the 3D department, Double Negative has a production and facility department as well. There are other senior positions in this company – Head of 2D, Head of Research and Development (R&D) and Production Manager.

The Singapore facility is a mirror of the London facility, just a scaled version of it. It runs exactly the same – it has the same technology. This is so that projects, work and clients can be shared between both studios.

Two departments manage the production of Double Negative’s shots – the 3D department, and the 2D department. These departments create elements that are included in the final image that will be given to the client.

2D artists take the footage shot on stage/set, and would clean the shots up, key out green screens, cleaning up TV elements, compositing 3D elements (along with 2D elements) into a final image. They produce initial concepts, models and assets that may be put into the show (e.g. something superficial, like an extra glass on a table, to a full city). They would model those assets, add texture, render and light. These assets would be handed to the compositors.

The Production department includes producers, line producers, coordinators, etc. These individuals manage daily operations, artist schedules, send out client liaisons, transferring data back and forth, initial budgets and budget breakdowns, working with supervisors to do that.

“We have our own internal producers and line producers,” Stuart indicates. “That production backbone sits with us constantly. Our clients are separate from our internal business operations – we’re a vendor to them.”

Double Negative is constantly looking at themselves, looking at what technology is doing, at their own efficiencies, and their potential for growth. Double Negative’s R&D Department looks after propriety tools, maintenance of tools, transfer of data between facilities, transfer of data to clients, studio editorial (take care of daily running, from backyard information to editing content so that it’s presentable to clients.)

According to Stuart, the R&D Department is currently involved with a French company (with one of their rendering engines). They’re helping them build a roadmap of their development, and have long-term solutions in mind as well as legacy items that are already in the pipeline.

Pipeline

Double Negative focuses almost exclusively on movies, although they have done several TV series. Stuart indicates that “TV is a recent endeavor in the last few years for D-Neg as a company. [Our jobs are] proving to be very fun, interesting and valid for us. The team in London is running extremely well, and we’ve had some works for some large productions.”

Double Negative’s clients complete a project’s pre-production work (in terms of the art department work). Double Negative may be involved with concept art, depending on their role in the film. They may be involved with the shoot, as well as the planning, shot methodology and budget breakdowns.

In terms of film production (work in visual effects), after Double Negative successfully bids for a film, they would start with shooting scripts (a screenplay). They would work with a visual-effects (VFX) supervisor from the studio, who may have an idea of “which chunks are visual-effects heavy”.

“It may be the case that we’re the VFX supervisor for the client’s side as well,” Stuart elaborates. “We work with the studios to do a breakdown of that bid, adding in our assumptions of how the work needs to be shot. We’d work out a budget, and we’d collaborate to work through the nuances of that script.”

“A good example would be any of the Nolan films. We’d be either the sole vendor, or one of the large vendors. We’d get a script early on, and a team (of three to four people) would read the script, and do a breakdown of it. We’d work with the VFX supervisor of that film.”

During Inception’s production, Chris Nolan wanted the buildings in a particular shot to crumble into the water, as if they were made of ice. Double Negative looked at references, worked on concepts, and worked with Nolan early on in the process to convey his vision through the images.

“The concept artists are part of our 3D team,” Stuart describes. “They use different methodologies to create 3D physical models that are painted over using a 2D mallet to create beautiful images.”

“[On one of our recent projects], one of our concept artists took the script, had an initial brief with the director, and we started working on this passage of text, which described the creatures in this film. We quickly devised several options, and our client immediately fell in love with them. He worked off our ideas to create more ideas – it was a real creative collaboration.”

Production

“At the top of the creative tree on the 2D and 3D departments of each project, there’d be an overall visual effects supervisor,” Stuart describes. “These guys are experts in their areas – they’d work with the producer to build documents of shot breakdowns, have each shot listed out, build up assumptions for how they see the shot being done, and what is shot on set. We’d add in days for each department as we see the kind of nuances of that work needed to be done. We’d build up the costs needed for that shot – it’s a standard template that we use to [estimate our budget].”

“We can analyse common shots – we can identify the common aspects of shooting different sequences. We might be able to build one asset that covers many shots, and just reuse it. We try and work into our costs that way – we consider the budgets that studios have in mind.”

“It’s something that’s built up with experience. As [an artist] gets more shows under their belt, and more exposure to the scheduling process, they can become more involved in driving that process. It builds their skillsets, management techniques and their supervision capabilities.”

The cost of a shot varies according to its nature. Stuart explains that that “a shot could be a very quick cleanup – for instance, a cleanup of a blemish on someone’s face – or it might be a short number of frames. However, the cost of building an entire environment for a single shot, with complicated elements (such as dragons with full muscle systems and special effects), would approximate a couple thousand sterling.”

As the Head of 3D, Stuart has managerial responsibilities. He explains that “[Double Negative] may have anything up to five to six shows at any one time. It’s up to me as head of department to know what work is coming, to know how work can be scheduled, to know where our staff currently is with shows. I’d need to identify how many modelers, texture artists, etc. are needed for one show. We’d have to decide whether or not we’d need additional recruitment or training services.”

Projects

Pirates: Band of Misfits

Pirates was a collaboration between Double Negative and Aardman Studio. Aardman completed the initial scripting, storyboarding, pre-visualisation. They submitted their work to Double Negative, who did post-visualisation, and included additional animation on top of these shots.

Although it was originally supposed to be produced in London, where Aardman is located, “due to scheduling reasons”, production was shifted to Singapore.

Although there was a small setup that was completed in London, most of the film was completed in Singapore. Approximately 84% of the shots were created in Singapore – 338 estimated shots were delivered as parts of the final product.

Double Negative handled the digital components of the film (mainly visual effects), whereas Aardman handled the stop-motion aspects.

“The project was Aardman’s in entirety, and we were the vendor for their visual effects,” Stuart explains. “They had a certain number of shots that required visual effects, and we supplied all the animation, the images, and the composites. When we submitted our work to them, they’d come in and do dailies, review our work, critique it, and tell us what they want. They’d give us direction.”

Hunger Games

“Hunger Games is a great film in terms of its box office success,” Stuart states. “We completed the [first part of the Mockingjay films] in its entirety here in Singapore. We worked on the previous two films in collaboration with London, but this was the first Hunger Games film that we did in its entirety in Singapore.”

“We dealt with our clients through their visual effects supervisor, and our internal visual effects supervisor. This was a big film in terms of the number of shots – our Singaporean studio created 487 shots. Our local and western crews both worked on the movie.”

Technology and Techniques

Double Negative uses a variety of products, and works closely with developers of certain software to tailor the software to their needs.

Due to technological development, and the greater availability of products, Double Negative uses more off-the shelf solutions which they would augment and build proprietary software. They would also construct a pipeline around their software, so that they can operate efficiently on large shows.

“Liaising with international contacts is multifaceted, in terms of where you’re getting your software. These companies, such as Maya, Autodesk and [Alias], may have offices across the world,” Stuart indicates. “Double Negative often liaises with companies that have offices in Singapore. However, the main push “for the roadmap for technology” generally comes through the large R&D department in London

“We have all departments in Double Negative,” Stuart indicates. “Our Animation department is just one specific department within our facility. For instance, in 3D, we have animation, as well as concept art, matte painting, modeling, texturing, rigging, lighting and rendering and look development.”

“Our look development department is where our artists would take a digital model, as well as the textures that are painted for that model, and would use various tools to plug these textures into what we call a surface shader, which would apply these textures onto our digital model. When light is applied to a scene, the shader will describe how the light reacts to the surface, and how the surface would turn an appropriate colour (that would be observed in that world).”

“Different shaders are used for material with different textures. It’s a way for the rendering engines on the computer to describe what light would return to the viewer, and how realistic the image would appear.”

Opportunities

“Relocating to Singapore was a great opportunity to grow globally, and to become part of the great, stable client in South-East Asia,” Stuart states. “The government was keen for us to help the industry grow, and we were keen to be a part of this movement. We worked with local staff, we pushed them through the ranks, and we helped Singapore’s industry grow.”

“Singapore’s well positioned in terms of its physical location, its economy and its stability as a country. It’s easy for businesses to exist here. It’s not where some of the Asian countries are, in terms of the quality of the films that they produce. For instance, China is a large country, and their film production industry is prolific. However, it has the potential to grow – there’s a huge amount of education in visual effects and animation. We recruit from local schools, and with other large visual effects existing in Singapore, we can see that growth, competition and talent is bred.”

“We’d like to work with the local crew, and to develop their industry, but we also need a thorough, healthy bloodline of foreign talent. That brings in the top level of artists, and the top level of work.”

Double Negative recruits students from local institutions, and allows them to explore the company’s various departments. “We give the students a chance to decide what they want to do. We allow them to experience different departments, and allow them to break through the ranks, so that they can decide what they want to do with their careers.”

“We may take junior artists straight out of school, who may not have experience, or a full idea of what they want to do. We probably bring them into the camera tracking department, or into the compositing department, and they’ll get very solid training, and from there, they’ll move into other artist roles.”

Advice/Final words

According to Stuart, if you’re an aspiring animator, “Keep working on your own stuff, and keep working on your reel.”

“You’ll never stop growing as an artist. You can’t expect to finish a course and apply for a job without practicing or growing again. Our greatest artists work on their own stuff on their free time out of sheer passion for the art of animation, modeling, concept, etc. Our greatest guys are hugely passionate and driven.”

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