19th October 2015

Dealing with monsters is all in a day’s work

Jenny Hirschkorn, The Times

How Milk bring monsters to life at their Fitzrovia studio…


Dealing with monsters is all in a day’s work

By Jenny Hirschkorn/ The Times

On the fifth floor of an unremarkable office block in Fitzrovia in London, Dom Alderson is trying to bring monsters to life.

Mr Alderson, a self-proclaimed film fanatic and lead lighting and look development artist for the Bafta-winning firm Milk VFX, is like millions of other Londoners in that he spends most of his long working day tethered to his computer. Yet the workspace that he shares with about 90 other visual effects operators looks more like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise than an average office space…
The monsters that Mr Alderson is working on will populate ITV’s forthcoming 13-part adaptation of Beowulf, one of English literature’s oldest surviving works.The creation of fantastical creatures such as those to be featured in Beowulf is a painstaking process that has passed through several specialist teams by the time it reaches Mr Alderson.

“It starts with modelling and texturing, then we go to rigging [a technical process requiring an animator’s knowledge of how objects move and interact].” This is like creating the creature’s skeleton. The animators then pick it up and finally it comes through to us.”
Qualities such as shininess, reflectivity and roughness are the responsibility of the look development artist. Those are perfected before lighting effects are introduced.
Since his graduation with a BA in computer animation a dozen years ago, Mr Alderson says he has noticed huge advances in technology, meaning that ever more realistic effects are possible.

“We work on a lot of creatures, many of them for TV, and I’m always trying to find a new challenge. Most of our creatures have fur on them now, which is something I really like doing. That used to be the luxury of big film budgets, but we’re now using a new bit of software that has opened up so many opportunities for us.”
According to UK Screen, a trade body, the visual effects industry was worth about £196 million in 2013. Will Cohen, the chief executive of Milk, describes it as a “high-octane, fast-changing world that you have to work really hard to stay on top of”.
The industry is dominated by the needs of seven big international clients in the shape of the Hollywood studios, but government support in the form of tax incentives, coupled with the highly skilled workforce in the UK, have helped to boost the amount of work placed in Britain.
Mr Cohen would like to see tax incentives for investment in the industry extended further. “I would love to see the ceiling raised. The enormous amount of big studio shooting that is going on means that productions often max out on their tax threshold, so a lot of the visual effects work goes elsewhere to collect a rebate on a separate tranche of the budget.”
It is not only the industry itself that is trying to keep up with all the changes but also the education system that feeds it. Creative Skillset, an organisation that was set up to help the creative industries to develop skills and talent, is trying to ensure that the sector can maintain its world-class standing by subsidising businesses such as Milk to take on and train newcomers.
Mr Cohen says: “People coming out of colleges and universities often have their expectations set too high but, because the skills are so highly specialised and continually evolving, it’s when they start work that the learning really begins.

On the job:

-Working hours Anything between 40 and 60 hours a week

– Starting salary Someone starting on a creative skillset scheme can expect about £16,500 a year, up to £20,000 within a year or so
-Qualifications BA or BSc in computer animation; apprentice schemes are also being introduced.
-Best thing “Being creative in a relaxed environment”
-Worst thing The “technology can be frustrating”

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