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The Artists

Regardless of what the marketing departments at software and hardware companies say, the quality of the final work does not come down to the tool, but rather to the talent of the artists. The artists drive the industry, and perhaps the hardest part of putting together a successful production workflow is finding the right artists.

Artists can be divided into two categories: those who have a strong interest and—you hope—talent in multiple disciplines, making them a kind of jack-of-all-trades; and those who prefer to specialize in only one or two areas. The type and size of the production company obviously has an influence over which type of artists is available. The two most apparent production strategies favor the two types of artist. Larger production companies, most apparent in film, seem to favor the specialized/departmentalized approach, with many artist-specialists working on only specific pieces of a project.

Smaller companies tend to follow a workflow where artists might need to wear multiple hats on a project. These artists might model, texture, and rig a character; or they might handle lighting, particles, and rendering. Many factors influence the approach that best fits the project, including budget, schedule, and available talent.

Geography

In many cases, the mix of talent deemed necessary for the success of a project might not be readily at hand—in house, in state, or even in country. Most projects benefit from having their entire team located under one roof. However, the influence of the Internet and the increasing access to high bandwidth to many companies and artists cannot be denied. Depending on the specifics of the project, allowing artists to work remotely can be a viable and possibly economical option. The comfort level of the director/producer in the ability, speed, and professionalism of the given artist should be the deciding factor.

If a remote approached is needed, certain obvious infrastructure issues need to be implemented on site. These include possible FTP site setup, a project Web site for artists, strict naming conventions, and availability to the artist of any third-party or proprietary tools or plug-ins needed for the project. Another obvious but often-overlooked issue is whether the remote artist is using the same version of the software.

Schedule

Working out a realistic project schedule is of paramount importance, followed closely by adhering to the schedule during production. When you set up a schedule, take many variables into consideration. First, understand the eight phases required in 3D production: layout/previs, modeling, texturing and mapping, rigging and animation setup, animation, lighting, rendering, and compositing. For the modeling, texturing and mapping, animation, and lighting phases, intermediate users should know what kind of work is involved. Let's look at a few of the phases that might be unfamiliar to readers new to production.

Layout and Previs

During the layout/previs phase, the project is blocked out in 3D, often using very low-resolution models that are barely more than primitives. It is here that the director can see any potential timing or staging problems before full-blown production commences.

Rigging and Animation Setup

The rigging phase is more common to 3D character work but can also include other types of animation setup. Typically, artists in the role of technical director (TD) handle this phase. A character TD usually is charged with creating the skeletons and IK setups for a character, along with any custom animation controls required by the animators. Using 3ds max 4, this includes creating complex IK hierarchies, creating manipulators and custom attribute controls, skinning/enveloping the character model, writing custom scripts possibly using Visual MAXScript, and setting up morph controls for facial animation. This might also include setting up clothing or hair controls. For noncharacter work, this phase might include setting up mechanical hierarchies and controls, particle systems, and other custom scripts necessary for the other phases of the project.

Rendering

The rendering phase is usually a bit more involved than merely clicking the Render button. Artists or TDs usually need a good understanding of the compositing process to set up render passes or elements that the compositors need. This is also the phase where individuals commonly known as Render Wranglers oversee any distributed rendering on a render farm using 3ds max 4's network rendering features.

Compositing

It all comes together in the compositing phase, where the final look of the work is tweaked. This phase enables faster and more flexible tweaking of the final look than afforded by re-rendering in 3D.

Approvals

The client approval process can sometimes be the slowest phase of a production and must be accounted for early. Although not always the case, clients are often uneducated in the realities of 3D production. In their defense, it really isn't their problem; it's yours. However, it is important in the planning stage that you implement a strict approval process and set ground rules as to how many and what kind of changes can be made at a given phase of production.

You should get final approvals or client sign-offs on 3D models while still in the modeling phase of the schedule rather than during the rendering phase. However, you also must limit how many times a client may request changes at a given stage, especially if the client is new to the 3D production process.

Changes

If there is any one truth shared in life—and in working in 3D—it is that the only constant is change. There will always be changes to your work, no matter how well crafted it might be. We are all artists at heart, and whether you are working on a game, Web site, commercial, movie, architectural walkthrough, or product display, remember: This is commerce, not art. Although you undoubtedly will become personally attached to whatever piece you are working on, you are being paid to please a client. Because "the customer is always right," (even though more often than not, they aren't), your workflow, like the artist's, must be designed to facilitate and adapt to changes at any point of the project.

Luckily, the underlying architecture of 3ds max 4 is reasonably flexible and capable of enabling the artist to make changes earlier in the pipeline without losing all later work. This can be achieved with minimal suffering on the part of the artist through careful technical planning and using certain features of the software.

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