Career Advice - Working as an Environment Modeler at Weta Digital
Want a successful career working as an Environment Modeler? Hamish Beachman is the Lead Environment Modeler at Weta Digital 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?
I am a Lead Environment modeler. The job involves building the digital environments, props and elements for all the worlds we create.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
Weta Digital is located in Wellington, New Zealand. The projects are mostly films.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
There was an early edition of the games magazine Edge. On the cover was a story about a Rise of the Robots, it 3D Studio Max, the first time I had heard of such software.I was a chef at the time and a school friend was working with helped me get a computer a copy of 3D Studio Max, in DOS. I loved it and got books and started to teach myself the software.
However life can keep you busy, and I was unable to spend my time on the software. I loved the cooking environment and the relationships, but I never wanted to be a Head Chef. When Media Design School started up, I saved my money, applied got in and hit class again. Lucky for me having been working for years I had a good work ethic and was able to pass with Distinction.
How did you get your first big break?
I was trying to get work around Auckland, but there was not much at the time. My school, Media Design School emailed me that National Geographic magazine wanted an intern. They had to have been recently graduated and have a reel that had natural history or ancient studies.Lucky for me I had both.
It took awhile to do the paper work as I was the magazines first international intern. It was only for 3 months, but it was amazing and I was able to work with the art directors on a piece on paelo reptiles. Pretty cool.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
After the internship I worked at Media Design School again, and then was approached to be Lead 3D on a game project. From there I went to be Lead 3D at Yukfoo Animation Studio. After that I went to Weta as an ATD for the last months of Avatar, then to Weta Productions to work on documentary, and back to Weta in the models department. I did some hard surface model before finding environment modeling suited me the most.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
Checking emails, preparing submissions for dallies and addressing notes, publishing and troubleshooting and helping artists. There will be meetings with the teams for the builds with other departments to discuss issues. Of course the main chunk of day is spent producing art.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Maya is the main modeling tool. Zbrush for sculpting. Headus software for UVs and displacements. Most of the workflow tools are proprietary to Weta and are protected with an NDA so unfortunately I can't talk about these.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
For environment work we work closely with layout and look dev, textures and shots. We need to work closely with the VFX Supervisor and the CG supervisors to ensure what we build works for all departments as well as hitting the required visual goal.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
Artistic demands and shorter time frames mean we need to work as efficiently as possible. Procedural workflows are definitely on the rise. Houdini, world machine.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
Tools that enable quicker turnarounds for artist to assess their work.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
I was using 3D software as a hobby for years. There were no schools in New Zealand at the time really. It can be hard to know what to focus on as 3D softwares can create almost anything. Going to school does two things. Gives you lots of time on the software.
Secondly the good schools have connections to industry and can help direct students to what they need to focus on.However the industry is evolving at all times, and the quality of education is higher than ever, so I think getting an education helps immensely.
What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?
Its pretty dependant on the artist and often this decision is dictated by the shows needs. It's good to ease a junior artist into the scale of asset they get. It's not really indicative of their abilities, but rather a way for them to understand the pipeline, workflows etc.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
I worked once at National Geographic Magazine in the art dept. They only cared about the quality of the art and to some extents that is true for VFX. Work ethic and passion are pretty high on my lists.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
Personally I like to see reels that stand out from the others. This year there where many reels that felt the same, turntables of well textured assets. It's not that the work is bad at all, but it can be hard to stand out visually.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Keep your head down and work, work work. A lot of what we do is just will power and dedication. Also try to finish what you start, easier said than done I know.
However a finished piece will look better and show commitment and perseverance, qualities you will need in production. Also remember that when working on show, you are the not the director or VFX Supervisor. You are a paid professional, which means getting the work done as requested and where you can push the quality.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Don't be afraid to you put yourself and your work out there. Post on forums, get involved with the community, leave constructive comments and encouragement to artists that you like. You can never know where that can lead you.