Elaine – Shader writer

Action or Adventure, Sci Fi or Thriller? Whatever type of film you are into it is often the special effects that make it what it is. Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Iron Man 2 are all titles that Double Negative Visual Effects have been working on recently so Future Morph took some time out to chat to Elaine, a Shader Writer from the company to see how she is involved in the film making process and to find out what qualifications you would need to follow in her footsteps.

What attracted you to this job?

I was always really interested in physics at school, learning how & why natural phenomena behaved they way they do and understanding things like light and motion, but I also felt like I wanted to have a career that was quite visual as I also loved art and photography. I thought perhaps I could study computer graphics and work in the computer games industry, then Toy Story came out and I was inspired to aim for the world of computer animation.

What does your typical day involve?

It really depends what project I’m working on, and what stage that project is at.

At the start of a project, my time is mostly spent figuring out the best approach to a tricky shot or element, what pipeline will work best and what lighting and shading techniques we will need to achieve a certain look.

At the start of a project I’ll also be involved in doing lots of research into lighting techniques, and maths and physics feature heavily here. I’ve to help make sure that we can achieve all the looks we need to, with all the technology that is available to us.

Once the project is up and running, my day to day job includes a combination of writing and maintaining the tools and techniques we’ve decided to use (or try), working with other artists to make sure these tools are what they need, and that they’re easy to use and working properly.

Towards the end of the project I spend most of my time supporting artists by fixing bugs or making tweaks to the tools we’ve put in place and helping them find rendering solutions to getting those tricky shots through. As I’m involved in writing the lighting tools, lots of people will come to me with questions when they are lighting their scenes, so it’s really useful to have a good understanding of how light works in the real world so I can understand what they need and the best way to go about helping them to achieve what they’re after.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

It’s great to be involved in a such a creative industry and especially to be able to approach it from such a technical angle, and to be able to help create amazing images that you know people will get real enjoyment from.

It’s also really satisfying to solve a tricky problem on a project by drawing on a combination of what I know and what research I’ve done to create a technical solution in order to help the artists get the visual result they’re after – and of course what could be better than seeing your work being used on the big screen!

What do your friends and family think about your job?

They’re very interested in what I do, as everyone goes to the cinema and watches movies, so they get to see the end result and hopefully get some enjoyment out of it. My family are usually very excited to see my name in the end credits!

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

The regular working day is usually 9-6, Monday to Friday. Depending on your work load, (or how much of a perfectionist you are), you might end up working later into the evening to get the work done and to the standard you want it. When the deadlines start to loom closer towards the end of a project, there’s usually a few weekends of work needed to get the shots out and have everything looking as good as possible! It can be hard work, but it’s a lot of fun, there’s always a great team spirit as you’re working together with all the other artists and everyone’s in the same boat, and of course, it’s immensely satisfying when the shots get “finalled”!

At the end of a project there’s usually an advance screening of the film which everyone goes to to share in seeing the full finished result and feel proud of the hard work that’s gone into it.

Normally you’ll have a little break between projects for a bit of rest and relaxation, so when you start on your next project, things are back to normal. It tends to stay nice and calm for a few months until the next project starts to ramp up and get busy!

How did you get to where you are today?

For Leaving Certificate (A-level equivalent in Ireland) the subjects I studied included Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology (I also studied English, Irish and French). I have a BSc in Computer Applications from Dublin City University, and from there I went on to get an MSc in Computer Animation from Bournemouth University. Once I left Bournemouth I came straight into the industry.

I worked in R&D for a few years and now I’m a Shader Writer and I also look after the lighting pipeline on a show.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Definitely keep up with maths and physics in school. I was so surprised when the things I’d learned in school that seemed so abstract started to crop up with real applications in computer animation and visual effects. A big part of what I do is write computer programmes to simulate light and how light interacts with surfaces in different ways, with all of this drawn directly from real world physics and maths – so suddenly calculus and trigonometry are incredibly useful things to know and understand!

Having an understanding of physics is really important, as you are basically trying to recreate real-world phenomena within the computer, so you need to be able to dissect and understand how these things work in the first place!

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field, and how much can this be expected to rise?

There are several routes into the industry, each with different starting salaries.
You can start as a runner, which has quite low pay, but you will usually be trained by the company so this is a great way to get into a good company and work your way up, perhaps if you’ve done a BA and have no other experience. If you have a promising show-reel, you may be taken on as a junior Roto artist, Matchmove artist or even as an ATD (junior technical TD).

If you’ve followed up your BA or BSc with an MA or MSc and have strong coding experience, you may be taken on directly as a junior programmer in R&D (Research and Development). This will rise then depending on what path you choose within the industry. If you go into R&D, you can be a specialist programmer (perhaps write things like Hair or Cloth simulation systems) and from there you can progress to a senior developer.

If you choose to work directly on shows, you’ll become a TD (in whatever area you’re interested in working in e.g. Lighting, Rigging, Animation, Effects) or a Compositor. When you’ve been working as a TD or Compositor for a few years, you can then move on to become a sequence lead and eventually a full 2D or CG supervisor over an entire show.

What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax?

I love running and cycling and spending time outdoors. I also spend time on photography, both digital and analog – I love to experiment with different types of film and processing methods at home.

And even though it’s so close to what I spend my working day doing, I still love going to the cinema or crashing out at home in front of a good movie!


Some of Double Negative’s key artists talk about their experiences working in the industry and how they use maths and/or science from day to day in this video clip.