An interview with Kevin Mannens by Amit Dixit.
CGIndia Feature

CGIndia Interviewed Kevin Mannens; technical director on major flicks such as; G-Force, Alice in Wonderland, 10,000BC and The Chronicles of Narnia: prince Caspian etc. Kevin talks about his work, TD-College and also give some tips for technical director. We thank him for taking time out from his busy schedule to chat with us. Thanks!

CGIndia: Please, Tell about yourself and how you get into VFX?

Kevin Mannens: I was born and raised in Belgium, where I originally pursued an academic career in philosophy. Due to a mind-boggling sequence of fortunate events, I ended up at Alias Wavefront, and from there on to The Mill, The Moving Picture Company, and now Sony Picture Imageworks.
A consuming love for deep (technical) diving drives me to scour the globe, alternating between a life asVFX TD and SCUBA instructor.

CGIndia: Can you please tell us in brief, what is a roll of Technical director?

Kevin Mannens:Basically, the TD is the person who everyone turns to for an answer when difficulties arise in getting complex 3D animation work completed. TDs are expected to have an intimate knowledge of all the software being used, and be able to come up with solutions as problems arise.
When a new job comes in, a bunch of people (often a CGI supervisor, a producer and a TD or two) get together to work out just how the job is going to get completed. Usually a bunch of the work is pretty straightforward and is easily assigned to animators, texture artists, match movers, etc. But a certain percentage of the work (and the more ''cutting-edge'' the facility, the bigger the percentage) will require some experimentation, research and possibly the development of new tools in order to get it done. It is up to the TDs to either establish a method using existing tools or instigate the development of new tools (often writing them themselves).
TDs usually take on those aspects of the work that are too technical (or tedious) for your average animator to want to tackle themselves. For example, things such as character rigging, crowd shots, cloth, fur, particles, dynamics and procedural animation.
As well as being the problem solvers, TDs are usually responsible for the lighting, shading and rendering of the final 3D output. With the increasingly complex rendering methods available these days (Image Based Lighting, Global Illumination, Ambient Occlusion, Caustics, etc) the task of look development and rendering has become a lot more complex. As a TD, you never stop learning new things. (Thanks Andrew)
Technical Directors represent the largest group of people working in the VFX and animation industries. They outnumber animators and modelers because there are so many aspects of CG production that require intense technical knowledge. Up until now, this knowledge has been acquired by either enrolling in Computer Science classes at a college or teaching yourself the techniques, and even then there is a lot of knowledge that you can only acquire while working in the industry. By enrolling at TD College, you can learn the secrets of how it's done directly from the best artists in the industry.

CGIndia: You have worked as technical director on major flicks such as; G-Force, Alice in Wonderland, 10,000BC and The Chronicles of Narnia: prince Caspian , which one is your most memorable projects and why?

Kevin Mannens:I felt really honored to be part of the hair team on G-Force. This movie is not going to win any Oscars for original screen-writing, but the FX are some of the best I ever worked on; the hair in particular. The hair team developed a pipeline that allowed us to crank out hundreds of shots with several furry creatures per shot – sometimes literally with the push of a button. The team itself consisted of such a bunch of goofy geniuses that months of crazy hours didn't bother me too much. All in all, it was an awesome experience.

CGIndia: You have opened online TD-College some time back. Can you please tell us about it and your basic teaching model?

Kevin Mannens: TD-College is the first and only school that truly prepares the students for the realm of CG-production by personally pairing them up with the artists behind movies like, The Day After Tomorrow, King Kong, The Matrix, and many more. TD-College's personalized mentor system will put each student one-on-one with artists from major studios like ILM, Dreamworks, Weta Digital, Disney and Digital Domain. Mentors’ credits include all blockbusters in recent memory.
Our courses focus exactly on what the student will be faced with when he/she gets thrown into the fiery depths of feature film production. Even the curricula of famous schools here in Hollywood rarely venture beyond basic content in all their courses. To be frank, if you want to learn hard-core CG from hard-core professionals, there is nothing else out there than TD-College. For example, if you are a technical director in this industry and you want to learn more about Python or Houdini, it's very hard to find courses specifically for the visual effects, written by people who know what they're doing. That is the reason why we started TD-College.
As a quick example: a while back we had a student who was taking one course at TD-College, and two other at very well known CG training schools. When I asked him how the three courses compared, he laughed and said there was no comparison with TD-College. He said that the other institutions just brushed the surface and the courseware didn't go deep at all; while TD-College's courses are expert-level, applicable knowledge. Again, we are production-based, so students will be presented with similar challenges as found in today's feature film industry. Each week's homework is very demanding and requires the student's utmost attention. That being said, since we are first and foremost a school, there is a plethora of support mechanisms in place: each week every student gets a personal, one-on-one session with his or her mentor; there are weekly, mentor-guided group sessions, we have message boards where mentors, peers and guest-mentors alike provide feedback and answer questions.
TD-College is completely online, so students from all over the world can enroll and follow classes from the comfort of their own living room. TD-College also offers on-going enrollment, which means students can register to the school 365 days a year and enroll to a course as soon as it becomes available, which is roughly every month. Each class is six weeks long and consists of a very detailed video, normally two hours per week, so that's 12 hours of video in total. This video is accompanied by an exuberantly detailed tutorial (20-30 pages per week) with pictures and screenshots.
Each week, every student has a one-hour, one-on-one with his/her mentor. And it really is one-on-one! It's just the student and the mentor. So, imagine Russell Darling is your Python mentor; that would mean you would have weekly personal chats with a CG supervisor who has worked on every one of the recent Star Wars movies! We use virtual classroom software called “Dim Dim”, which allows you to see and hear each other and allows the mentor to take over the desktop of the student if he wants to show a certain technique. Most of the time, it's discussing the homework, which is (adhering to production standards) extremely intense, and also the course itself. Aside from the one-on-one session, there is also a weekly group session in which the students come together as a group to discuss the homework. We also work with guest mentors (mentors who are currently not actively teaching) who will jump into the discussions and answer questions on the boards. Normally, each course costs US$1200, but we have currently a Summer Special running in which a single course is discounted to US$1000. If you sign up for two courses, you get an even bigger discount and pay US$1750, instead of $2400!



CGIndia: You are also developing procedural demolition software called “Fracture” for feature film. Can please tell us some more about its applications?

Kevin Mannens: Fracture is a Maya plugin for procedural destruction of 3D objects, currently in the early stages of development. I am working on this project with Ed Caspersen, a US marine-turned-nerd (http://undeclared-variable.com/), and "The Machine", a super-natural programmer who desires to remain in the corridors of obscurity for now. Together with things like photo-real hair and water, easy to use, yet art-directable destruction of 3D objects is one of the holy grails of the CG industry. Even in the land of propriety software, destruction is usually handled like an extra-marital b*****d child with syphilis. Like any procedural simulation application, destruction has a long – and hence expensive – development cycle. With simulation sometimes running in the millions of RBs, it would require a huge amount of research and development, and hence resources, to create a tool that’s usable.
If a movie only has a few destruction shots, the money people rather sacrifice the sanity of a few TDs than devote a budget to actually writing a tool that works. Fracture will change that. We are working on an easy-to-use, yet ultra-directable solution for destruction. We still have a long way to go, but the progress we have made over the last few months is comforting. Currently we are writing our own custom RB solver, specifically geared towards destruction simulation.
If readers are interested in becoming beta-testers for Fracture, they can sign up at http://www.fracture-fx.com/. We are always looking for talented FX people who can provide us feedback on our software! Very recently, we created a master class about Fracture, hosted by Autodesk at Siggraph 2009. It covers (amongst many other things) the ideas behind the software design and our plans for the future. .

CGIndia: Tell us, what all personal/commercial projects you are currently working on?

Kevin Mannens: After my day job at Sony and taking care of business at Fracture and TD-College – I try to get out as much as possible. The US is a vast place and I am trying to make the best of my time here.

CGIndia: Any Dream Project, you would like to do in future?

Kevin Mannens: I’d like to be part if the dive team on a luxury yacht that sails around the world looking for big fish and treasure wrecks.
More CG-related, I’d like to work on a movie that will stand the test of time, while presenting technology as it stands with unrivaled challenges.

CGIndia: What advice would you like to give, to aspiring Technical director?

Kevin Mannens: Don’t shut yourself off from the world. It’s OK to be in love with the code, but it’s the tangible world that provides the best inspiration.

CGIndia: What futures hold for Kevin Mannens? Where do you see yourself in next five years?

Kevin Mannens: Hopefully enjoying life even more then I do now ;-)

Thanks for taking time out and chatting with us. We certainly like to have more of you on our website…may be a Tutorial or some more tips. Thanks again and Good luck for your future!!
- Regards, Amit Dixit.

>> TD-College website: www.td-college.com

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