Career Advice - Working as a Creature TD with Seppe Vangrunderbeek
Want a successful career working as a Creature TD? Seppe Vangrunderbeek is a Creature TD/TechAnim Artist at DNEG Montreal, and he sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.
What’s your current role and what does it involve?
My current role is Creature TD. It involves Rigging and Creature FX. For rigging we do everything from props, vehicles and digi-doubles. I mostly work on CFX which covers shot-sculpting, cloth and hair simulations. Creature TD will also work on crowd simulations but I haven’t had to do a crowd shot yet.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
I work at DNEG Montreal, Canada. DNEG work on projects in Visual Effects, Feature Animation and will do stereo conversion as well. The Visual Effects projects we work on span across Film and Television.
Personally, I work on the Film side of Visual Effects but I help out with TV and visa versa if needed! We are one big Creature Team who love to help each other out!
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
As a kid I really loved to draw, make stories and invent small worlds. I used to watch a lot of movies and series with my grandparents like Tom & Jerry, the early Disney movies on video, etc. When I was younger, one of my best friends, Robby, used to share all the movies he loved with me like the MCU, The Song of The Sea...films that lit a spark within me.
My oldest brother knew I loved movies, anime, and gaming, and one day he took me to FACTS, a Belgian Comic Con-like event. There I saw a teacher from DAE (Digital Arts and Entertainment) making a 3D model. After talking with this teacher, I really wanted to join this University to become a 3D artist.
When I got to the school and started the VFX - 3D Production Major, I took a lot of general courses in the first year. A small taste of everything. I realised I add a special interest in Rigging and Animation. This eventually led me getting to where I am today!
How did you get your first big break?
I think I got my ‘big break’ by pure chance. While I was in my last year of studies I started applying for jobs all over the world. I did have a goal in mind of where I wanted to work but I kept my options open; experience is experience.
I got a job at Mill Film, Montreal, but since my visa didn’t arrive on time I wasn’t able to start the job or move to Montreal. A few months later I got contacted by the same recruiter saying she had something that might interest me and I was sent a CFX test from MPC, Montreal. I had never done this before but since I really wanted to work at MPC I gave it my best shot! I got the job and started my journey into VFX. I think to me that was my first big break since I always dreamed of working on big Hollywood movies.
Described the journey you took into your current role?
While I was looking for an internship I asked one of the companies I had an interview with if it would be possible if I could get a student job with them. The happily said yes and this led me to my first actual job: Rigger at Fabrique Fantastique, an animation studio from Belgium. Here I learned the ropes of rigging and what it was like to work in the industry (very different from school).
After Fabrique Fantastique I moved to Montreal, Canada, to start working at MPC as a TechAnim Artist. Here I learned everything about CFX. It was a very steep learning curve but that was what DAE had prepared me for.
After working at MPC for a while I joined DNEG Montreal. This is where I got the chance to combine my old passion (Rigging) and my new one (CFX).
I am thankful for all the colleagues that have shared their knowledge with me and have raised me to the level I am at now.
On my journey so far I have had a lot of help from my wonderful teachers, colleagues and friends. If one of my friends had never sent me a job application for Mill Film, I don’t know if I would be where I am today. I am thankful for that! Same goes for my job at DNEG - I had another friend telling me about the job and pushing me to apply.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
A typical day is hard to describe. Everyone has their own way of going about his/her day and it also varies from show to show.
I would say a typical day starts off with saying good morning to the whole team and sending in a song (or receiving one). Each day someone shares a song to start the day with some music! After that we check our email to see if schedule changes have been made, or important news has been shared, and we check our calendar to see what’s on for the day.
I then check my schedules to see if any new tasks came, and if not, we pick up on our shots from the day before. If I have finished a shot or have been assigned a new one, I consult with my lead or supervisor to get a brief on what needs to be done.
Depending on the show I am assigned on, I go to 'dailies', where each day we present our shot progress to the VFX Supervisor to get feedback on what we have done. Also, we have a daily catch-up with our team (all artists working on a specific show) where we get an update on what we have done, need to do, exchanging some info with each other on common issues/fixes there might be, etc. We also make time to share some jokes or something great about our day...These are meetings I really look forward to each day, especially now that I work from home.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
Our whole Creature team! Whenever I, or somebody else in our team has an issue, or a question, our whole team is there to help each other out. I love being part of a great team that helps solve issues together.
I also work closely with Animation, Lighting, Compositing and FX. Whenever I make a new rig it always gets sent off to Animation so they can test it and send us all the feedback they have so I can make changes for them and make it more to their liking. Whenever Animation is done on a shot we sometimes ask them to make a pre-roll a bit different or make some adjustments to the animation to help us out with our simulations. An animation change can be something like pulling an arm outside of a chest so we don’t alter the silhouette too much and stay as close to the approved animation as possible.
Lighting and Compositing come in whenever we have to match something to the plate or whenever we’ve missed something that pops out when the textures and lighting are applied. Our interactions with FX varies from show to show - we can match a character to the plate so the FX team can use it to drive their simulations so it lines up better for Comp, for example.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
More and more studios are making the change to Houdini for their CFX. It doesn’t really change the nature of my role since CFX stays CFX, we just have new software to learn to get a better result. That’s part of the business - we never stop learning! The future might bring even more new software in the mix, who knows? It’s always fun to learn something new.
Realtime is also making its way into the VFX industry but since it’s quite new I’m not really sure how this will change the nature of my role; only the future can tell.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
The diversity. The chance to be able to do more than one job, if that makes sense? Not only do I get to do CFX, but I get to make rigs, create scripts/write tools, and maybe in the future I’ll get the chance to do some crowd!?
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
It might seem a bit odd since we have been working from home for a very long time now, and I really want to go back to the studio but, I wouldn’t mind seeing work from home as an option. For example: there are some days where you would be too sick to go to work but where you could still work from home. Or like me, if your partner is on the other side of the world, it would be lovely to stay with them for a while, whilst still working so you can be together longer!
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
I would say yes and no. CFX-wise I didn’t have much knowledge beforehand but I would have never been able to do it or keep up with the learning curve if I didn’t have knowledge of Maya and rigging, which I learned at school. These days there are a lot of very good tutorials online to learn all you need to know on a certain topic.
For me, going to Howest DAE really taught me some discipline, to push myself, to cope with steep learning curves, and to not be afraid of a heavy workload.
In high school I wasn’t the best student and maybe that's because I wasn’t fully interested in all the courses, however, I did enjoy my time at University. Going to university really helped me with time management and it also gave me a lot of good friends and good connections I can still rely on to this day.
I think that having a diploma also shows your future employers you can start on something, push yourself and finish it! Some companies require you to have an education but not all do. My conclusion on this topic is that although you don’t necessarily need formal education to learn all your skills, it helps out with shaping you and teaching you valuable things to be prepared for the industry.
Try to get as much feedback as you can from fellow artists online or in your immediate circles, to help you evolve your skills.
What tasks would you typically ask junior artists to handle?
As juniors we usually start off with shots that have less complicated animation and shots with fewer characters. As juniors we also usually don’t get ‘key’ shots which define a look for the rest of the sequence. I say usually, because it does happen from time to time that we get more difficult shots so we can really prove ourselves and show what we can do! This is not like a test or anything, but just a nice opportunity we get from our lead/supervisor who believe in us.
What skill do you look for when hiring an artist?
Talent and dedication! You don’t have to be the top student in your class. If they see you have talent and you are a good team player - someone who fits nicely with the team and someone who is eager to learn - you will be a great fit!
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
Not quite sure, I’m quite new myself. I’d say maybe some python scripting? For a lot of companies this is not a must but it’s definitely a big plus and it can help you out in so many ways.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
Pick a shot from a movie/series, or a clip from YouTube, and try to recreate it as close as possible. Don’t mind the textures, don’t mind the animation (maybe ask a friend who would like to help), don’t mind the environment...just focus on creating the same look and feel of the cloth and hair (if possible). This really shows you can create something nice starting from reference.
Bring diversity into your demo reels; simulate some props (flags, ropes, rope bridges, etc.) or different clothing and fabric styles. Even including how your sims would react to different weather (no wind, storm, etc.) would be great for a prospective employer to see.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Getting discouraged by not getting an answer or by getting a "no" for an answer. I can say this happened to me - I was getting very discouraged and I was losing faith in myself. I applied to a lot ofdifferent companies and only a handful reply. My advice would be to not let yourself be discouraged! Keep pushing and one day you’ll get your opportunity!
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to ask for help. We are all in the same boat. We’ve all been where you have been so don’t be shy! It’s better to ask someone for help or advice than to lose too much time searching for the answer yourself. Have a 1 hour rule - If you have an issue or problem that you can’t solve it in an hour, ask for help. Even the best in the business still ask questions and ask for help!
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Sleep more, eat better and don’t be too afraid/shy to ask questions.
Seppe Vangrunderbeek is a Creature TD from Belgium that moved to Montreal, Canada to follow his dream of becoming part of movie magic! Seppe is currently working at DNEG Montreal. You can find him on ArtStation and LinkedIn.