Special Effects artist held a lively Q And A on his craft working on Previz for some of the summer’s biggest hits.
Andrew Hwang was born in Philadelphia, PA. During his career, Andrew has worked as a 3D artist focusing on modeling, concept creation, and texturing. Andrew has been doing art all of his life which lead him to Full Sail University’s renowned Computer Animation degree program. After completing his Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Computer Animation at Full Sail in 2006, Andrew moved cross-country to pursue a career in video games and feature films in the industry hotbed of California. Since mastering his craft at Full Sail, Andrew has worked on multi-million dollar budget summer blockbusters, best-selling video games and other creative projects. He is currently the Lead Modeler and Asset Supervisor at The Third Floor Inc., a respected visual effects company.
You’ve worked on different models for these films. Are there any specific models we would recognize that you worked on specifically?
Andrew Hwang: Yes, sure, I mean it was mostly when I first started off, probably one of my biggest projects was Alice in Wonderland, and I was working really closely with Rob Stromberg. He was the also the production designer for Avatar, but he was also the production designer for Alice in Wonderland. We were pretty much making the Red Queen Castle and the White Queen Castle night and day, just going off and trying to think of ideas and how it looks. That’s probably one of the most memorable assets that I worked on. More recently for Avengers, it’s been for The Hulk character and also that jungle creature which is just our pet name for the worm-like creature that drops down from the portal in the sky.Also there was a stage for the aliens and the chariots to see how they were going to all attach onto one flying vehicle and whatever it’s going to be like being biomechanically engineered and fused together. There were plenty of others too, but I guess those are the ones that just sort of stand out to me the most.
When you do the actual modeling, do you usually actually model the whole creature and get into the texturing usually?
A. Hwang: It’s mostly just the previous part, but every now and then, we go ahead and take the model to the final, but that happens more for video games that we take models to final rather than for film, but yes, that happens as well, too.
In pre-visualizing for Total Recall, how easy was the creative process given how the original was already established in the first film?
A. Hwang: From what I’ve seen, whenever there’s a remake, the design is actually harder, because they kind of want to break away from what is usually the norm to kind of give a fresh look and feel to the film, more like giving homage to the original without duplicating it.The creative design element to it is like any other project. I’m seeing what works and seeing what doesn’t work. But it wasn’t overbearing, but at the same time all the answers just didn’t come to us simply having knowledge of the original film.
Tony Tellado: I’m really amazed that these days movies like The Avengers and Men In Black really can’t be made without pre-viz; how far do you take the pre-visualization as far as creating models? You don’t go as far as full, but how far do you take them these days?
A. Hwang: The work that I’ve been doing is video game-quality level and a lot of times they’ll even hand over our production models and there’s just a few tweaks to them, and then they just go put your work into the film. So as far as our models go, they’re clean and we apply custom touches to them. A lot of times we do shadows and effects and occlusion maps and everything like that, so our models are taken pretty far. I’d say it’s just right below today, video game-level status.
Tony Tellado: That’s amazing. You never take them as far as being photo real or anything like that?
A. Hwang: For the textures, we will, especially if there’s an actor or a specific concept art that they wanted to make it look like. We’ll go ahead and take those photos and we’ll fly them just as we’re doing finals, we’ll go ahead and lay out the UVs and then have low light photo project the textures onto the models to make it look as real and final as possible.Because for the director, it will be easier for them and whoever else is watching the film so that there’s really no question as to the synergy between what’s real and what’s not when it comes down to the final.
The virtual effects that we see in movies and video games nowadays are just getting so incredible, more incredible every year it seems. From a production standpoint, given the progress of software and hardware technology, how long do you think it will before these creations are truly indistinguishable from reality? What do you think are some of the hurdles that we still have to overcome before we get there?
A. Hwang: That’s a really good question, because right now we are pretty much just doing everything in Maya Software and After Effects, but we are looking into actual video game engines for our previz. We’ve been looking into other vendor options that are available for us, and things are looking better and better every day, but I’d say probably close, within the next five, six years or so, because of the way that technology is just evolving so fast for this industry, everyone just wants to try to push the envelope further and further.
You talked a bit about using the software. Do you use a lot of proprietary software, or is it more because you’re in the previz part of it?
A. Hwang: Yes, well, we don’t use any proprietary software. I mean we have certain tools that are custom built for us, but it’s mostly within either Maya, After Effects Photoshop and Zebra.
Do you enjoy the modeling or the textures more? What do you enjoy the most?
A. Hwang: I love both stages. It’s just kind of what you’re in the mood for most of the time. I actually like it the most when you can sit down and just create and design something from concept to completion. But half the time, we’ll receive some concept art or some kind of package of images that we can use or a production design for the asset to help us nail down the final look.But surprisingly a lot of times they don’t have a jumping off point and they just want to kind of get the ball rolling. That’s actually when I have the most fun because you can just sit there and be creative with no boundaries and make up whatever, just following loose guidelines. A lot of times they’re pretty happy with our creation and we just tweak it out a little bit based on their reaction to the design.
Is there a big difference between the kinds of work you do for a bigger production compared to something that’s lower budget? Can you tell us a bit about that?
A. Hwang: For the lower budget stuff, since they don’t have that much room to explore, they kind of plan ahead more like in commercials, it’s like they know exactly what they want ahead of time. They just need to be able to see it in front of them which is where we come in. For a bigger budget, obviously they have more freedom and fewer restraints so that allows more room for creativity and spontaneity. Also leaves more time for exploration, to look around for quite a while before they go ahead and all decide on a design or something that they want.So I feel like the lower budget stuff is a lot faster as far as finding out what they want and delivering on that. The bigger budget stuff is a lot more freeform, sketching out totally original ideas or working with the provided assets and seeing what you’re going to come up with.
When you’re working for a smaller company, though, do you usually get to do more of an overall approach to multiple things as opposed to like one little model for a film?
A. Hwang: Oh, definitely. Our strongest and most valuable artists don’t just do one thing. These are guys that can model, texture and animation or After Effects. Modelers and shop creators, they have to have a good sense of lighting, and creating atmosphere and depth no matter what it is that they’re doing. So, yes, small company, the less boundaries, the more valuable to the scene you’re going to be.
When you do the textures, do you use a lot of photos, or when it’s for this kind of business, is it more like creating them by hand or is it a combination?
A. Hwang: It’s a combination, but I’d say most of the time, it’s going to be photos. If they can provide a photo of what they’re looking for it helps speed up the process and in the first previz it is ALL about speed and just being able to knock it out of the park when you’re given a compelling photo to work with.
When you’re dealing with something just trying to look like a human or even exactly like one, how is the technology today to try to get around those kind of uncanny problems that have plagued us in the past?
A. Hwang: Well, I mean for us there’s a little bit more leeway because they know that they’re looking at previz, so we don’t really have to deal with the shoulders and elbows not looking 100% realistic or muscle formation underneath the skin or anything like that.For us, we pretty much just try to make it like an animators’ template. So a final animator he’ll go ahead and have a low risk proxy model that he’ll be able to work with, just so that it moves fast and everything, but you still kind of get the general idea of what the shape and figure is. We don’t really have to deal with the gripes of nailing down other specific mechanics of the human body and how it moves.
Is there any piece of work that you’re particularly proud of?
A. Hwang: Yes, The Avengers I thought it was AWESOME! I enjoyed working on it, the jungle creature/dragon thing and the jet and the carrier, just being a part of such an epic movie itself, it was very rewarding seeing it as a fan and as a professional.
My question is in relation to what you were just talking about as far as working on The Avengers and how excited you were to do that. I know that Full Sail, your school, had another 55 grads who worked with you on The Avengers. What was your experience like working with other grads from Full Sail who came from the same educational background as you? Then, in addition to that, could you tell us a little bit about how Full Sail’s education experience affected your career?
A. Hwang: I got to work with other animators and other modelers who also came from Full Sail, and we were just a couple of classes apart from each other. Whenever we land a really big project like this, we’re always reminiscing and it makes for really good times like a close-knit fraternity. All of us have a hard time believing that just a couple years ago, we were grinding away in midnight labs, not knowing where we were going to end up but dreaming that we would someday way down the road be working on a film as big and creatively robust as Avengers. It’s really pleasing to know that that’s exactly where we are now, probably quicker than we could’ve imagined, so everything else just kind of paid off.
Based on your experience at Full Sail, were there any specific classes, instructors or lessons that you got there that you can look back on now as really influential in getting you to where you were going in your career?
A. Hwang: The first memorable class and teacher that I ever had was Kathy Blackmore and that was an actual 3D object perspective for us, a drawing class. It was nice to get in there, going back to your roots, stripped down with just pen and pencil. She came from a Disney background so she was a professional, but she also had an optimistic mindset and a way of getting around stern, trouble areas. So she gave me a lot of tips and tricks to work with that I still use today. As far as 3D goes, I remember my teacher Ricardo Tobon helped me a lot. Both teachers helped me out on answering any question that I had about the industry, about technique, then they’d also go out of their way to help mentor me.I would bombard them with questions all the time just because I was eager and wanted to know how to do this or how to do that. Wanted to know the best way or technique of doing this and going about creating something like that. I think they respected my curiosity and helped foster it as well.
Tony Tellado: When you approach a video game, I would think they’d be more work, I guess you have to design and previz different variations of the same sequence, depending on what the gamer does?
A. Hwang: Yes, for that kind of stuff, we actually have more cap data, our artists actually go ahead and we have motion suits, like a movement capture suit and we go ahead and record motion-capture for whatever the sequence is. We’ll grab tons of movements like walk cycles, leaping, jumping actions, and that’s kind of how we get around that hurdle.That way we’re not just doing the same motion over and over again of a character walking upstairs or downstairs. When it’s a really complex action a lot of times we even hire professional stunt guys and girls, and they come in and get in the motion suit and perform whatever actions that we need.
Tony Tellado: From your experience, how has the motion become more advanced, even just in your young career so far?
A. Hwang: It has, it has. I remember before you had to be brought to this specialized room with all these trackers and whatnot. You had to have a bunch of ping pong balls or dots stuck all over to your face and body. But we’re using another system called Inner Sense and it’s like a body suit where it’s just a couple of sensors in the key positions like shoulder and elbows and hips and joins and whatnot. You actually attach three digital scanning readers up above the ceiling, and it can track your motion, so you don’t have to go to a specialized room or anything like that.That’s one of the main reasons why it has grown so much; it’s because we can take our motion capture technology with us. We were all working on films and we actually take our motion capture hardware and software with us over to model. That way they don’t have to have anything set up and we just do it in a corner office where nobody is working, and it’s really convenient.
From film to film, how do you get a feel for the shooting style in previz when cameras aren’t clearly established yet?
A. Hwang: First we try to dig up anything that the director or the production designer has worked on. That way we get a really good sense of what kind of angles they like, what kind of focusing they like to work with and just try to get a feel for their composition; so we actually go ahead and do research on what look and development that they’re most comfortable with in their past work. Because, yes, it changes all the time, and we like doing different things, so that’s how we stay afloat with it.
Since you had a different role in The Avengers than Total Recall, how did the experience in The Avengers help if at all?
A. Hwang: Experience on The Avengers helped me out a lot because it was probably one of the largest collaborations that I’ve been a part of, because it’s bringing together so many different elements and actors and characters and so many layers all within one movie. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out because once we’re done with the previz we pretty much had to wait to see the final product on film. So from The Avengers and with its army of characters it was all about closer teamwork.
Have you ever considered doing some of this work for television, or are you sticking to the movies?
A. Hwang: Actually, we’ve done some of this work for commercials, we’ve had Nissan as a client and Corona and a couple of other clients, but yes, we’ve done some television spots, too. As far as television series-wise goes, I remember that there was work for a reality TV vehicle, but I don’t really know. I guess that’s up to our founders, to The Third Floor founders, whether they want to get more into that avenue or not.
What’s the hardest project you’ve ever worked on or piece of it or something that challenged you a lot?
A. Hwang: It was probably Alice in Wonderland. I was pretty much only a year out of school at Full Sail U, and I’m diving into this really big budget with these really big names, like Johnny Depp, Tim Burton etc. So there was a lot of personal learning for me, and a lot of it was also how to go about and collaborate and design with other people. There were so many different artists and divisions, and just taking a bunch of different concept sketches and pieces that another artist did and try to bring it together.
Following up on what you were saying about getting out of school being in your first year and working on Alice in Wonderland and it’s a lot of pressure with all these big names and you were collaborating with all these different people and trying to get used to that, is there anything you can draw back on from your days at Full Sail that helped you out in being able to collaborate with so many different people on such a large project and staying organized and staying focused while still being able to be creative in that atmosphere?
A. Hwang: Yes, absolutely, lab groups, from my time at Full Sail. The graduate comes out with their entire concept role and there are the classes where the content is really stuck together and just everyone watches each other’s backs. We were always bouncing ideas off of each other and asking for critiques. You have to learn how to work with other people, otherwise that single man card isn’t really going to work out too well for you either in school or out in the industry. So yes, a huge portion of the work is just about being able to work together. I remember that in my class, the one that I graduated with at Full Sail, I remember hearing other teachers just talking about how tightly knit we were. It helped immensely.
Tell me what it’s like when a trailer comes out for a movie that you’ve done and you see your work on the screen for the first time, you see everything come to fruition. What’s that experience like for you when you first started and you’d see your work up there? Is it still like that for you now, do you still get as excited as you do for, say, Total Recall?
A. Hwang:Yes, I’m not going to lie, it’s still pretty awesome and so cool. Even if we go ahead and do something or we go ahead and make something, I’m bound to get cut from the film at some point, you know, sometimes it gets cut and we don’t know if we made it into the final of even the trailer. It’s nice to see that something that you worked on and helped build and create, makes it up there on the big screen and you can say that you were a part of that. Yes, I mean that is awesome.
Is there anything that’s been cut from movies that you can talk about say, The Avengers or Battleship or Men in Black, anything that we haven’t seen yet from you?
A. Hwang: A lot of the Avengers costumes got changed around from what we originally were doing. But honestly, I thought that the costumes in the final cut turned out to be fantastic; so, yes, things have been cut, but I don’t really remember anything that I had done specifically that’s been cut.
What made you want to do this as a career? What made you decide that you wanted to go into animation in the first place?
A. Hwang: It was growing up I’ve always been into art and drawing. It’s what I did in my free time as a kid. I never really knew what I wanted to do with it, and I like any other guy, I had just played a whole bunch of video games and watched a lot of movies, whether it was Jurassic Park or The Matrix or just anything that looked cool like on the big screen. I just really wanted to know how to do it, and that’s just always been how I am.I’ve always had a need or a curiosity to find out or figure out how something is being done or how it’s being created. I just went ahead and started looking for answers and my friend was actually going to school for it at the time, and computer animation was so new, maybe three schools in the entire country. I talked to her about it and she showed me what it was all about, and I didn’t really have anything else lined up or going for me.So I just went ahead and I took a shot at it and I really loved it, so that was pretty much a done deal.
Special thanks to New Media Strategies
His work includes:
Men In Black 3
JOURNEY to the Center of the Earth 2
X men First Class
Jack the Giant Killer
Iron Man 2
Alice In Wonderland
MARS NEEDS MOMS
I AM NUMBER 4
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Resident Evil 5
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3