This month we are very excited and privileged to interview Dane Maddams, Executive Vice President of Plastic Wax Studios, an Award-winning visual effects, 3D art, animation and production studio specializing in content for video games, film and television. Some notable works include The Hunger Games 2, BioShock Infinite, Saints Row IV, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Tomb Raider, Civilization V: Brave New World, Fallout: New Vegas and Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham.
CGB – Can you briefly explain the history of Plastic Wax and how it was formed, and how many people work there?
D.M. – It’s not common knowledge; but Plastic Wax is actually family owned business (Parents are the owners, brothers are the art/production and marketing leads) we’re an Animation studio based in Sydney and L.A, started almost 20 years ago.
We were conceived as a small but impassioned team working on projects for the Wiggles, Bananas in Pajamas and Hi- 5 in the 90’s. We scored our first game gig working on cut-scenes and animation content for Ultima Online (one of the first MMO’s). Fast forward a few years and we launched the Borderlands series with its first Cinematic. Gears or War, Bioshock, Mafia and Homefront we’re all us. Fallout, Dawn of War 2 and Lego Dimensions are just some of the projects we’ve been privileged to have worked on.
So you’ve probably seen our work, even though you may not know our name.
CGB – What is your background?
D.M. – I’m actually one of the brothers, I’ve been with the company much of my career, I initially began in IT, gaining a degree in network engineering and security systems (So our IT manager tends to be more forgiving with me when I try and fix things myself)
I worked for several IT firms and although I loved tech, I didn’t feel challenged in my roles so I attended film school and eventually landed a production assistant role at Plastic Wax, gaining ranks throughout the years into producer, then Producer and production Manager.
To date I’ve been honored to have opportunities such as launching the cinematic campaign for Transformers: Revenge of the fallen, directed and produced the announce trailer for Fallout: New Vegas, produced motion capture for Hunger Games 2, created over 10 minutes of animation content for Bioshock: Infinite and have worked with Mcann Erickson, Saatchi and Saatchi and DDB on numerous television campaigns, including launching the Volkswagen GTI, and Hyundai Grandeur.
Today I run the companies day to day, oversee all productions, and get to travel back and forth the US to visit our clients and chat with them directly about their upcoming needs.
CGB – What is the main differences between Plastic Wax and other VFX or animation studios around the world?
D.M. – We specialize in game cinematic content (which includes pre-rendered, in-engine and VR) have an incredible groundswell of talent that we represent in the Asia pacific region and we’re modular, meaning agencies and major creative houses will come to us for content too (not just developers or publishers).
CGB – Do you have any rival favorites?
D.M. – The Game cinematic industry is notoriously intimate, personally when i see another company release a kickass cinematic trailer I usually email and congratulate them.
But I’d have to say Blur due to some of their legacy work, there are also few Australian film VFX houses doing amazing work, such as Iloura and Animal Logic.
CGB – Are there any advantages or disadvantages having your studio located in Australia instead of the US?
D.M. – 95% of our client base is international and primarily from the US, with regular clients like Warner Brothers, Disney and Microsoft. One of the first questions we are asked is ‘Why wouldn’t a US company just hire locally?”
And my answer is always talent. There’s incredible and diverse animation talent in Australia that we’re very proud of.
Secondly our advantage is financial. We use the exchange in our favor, our dollar is currently at 70c to the US. This means right now our clients achieve a 30% saving for the same product they receive locally.
CGB – Is it more demanding to create cinematics for video games or work on VFX for film or TV, and can you explain the pros and cons of each?
D.M. – Both are equally as challenging and present unique and varying obstacles. Generally a film production has longer schedules and has a much higher volume of work with a larger team base. Game cinematic productions have a smaller focused team, with generally only a handful of weeks/months to complete a launch trailer. Stress levels and pressures are very similar though!
CGB – Can you explain the entire process you and your team go through (The specific steps) in creating a finished trailer?
D.M. – No two projects are ever alike but here’s a quick run-down on the process…
Creative Treatment/Scripting – Sometimes this is already provided by our clients and other times we may just have some words scrawled onto a napkin. Either way we’ll work with our client to ensure the concept creatively ticks all the boxes.
Storyboards and Design – Our talented storyboard artists will create a 2D version of the trailer or cinematic shot by shot and we’ll iterate that with our client and usually end up with a timed animatic. Also if necessary we’re usually concepting and designing any characters or environments that are needed for the project.
Asset Creation – With the world’s best modelers at our disposal we then move into the creation of high-res models whether they are people, monsters, spaceships, five-headed dragons, you name it we’ve probably made it in 3D.
Previz and Layout – Once we have our boards and some proxy versions of our assets the layout team will jump in and begin staging the sequence in 3D. What we look for here are timing, overall action as well as first pass cameras.
Motion Capture – Armed with our previz which kind of acts like a blueprint we then go into motion capture. We’re lucky enough to have our own mocap studio here in Sydney which we jump into whenever the need arises. There we’ll capture both body and facial performance that then gets handed off to our animation team.
Animation – This is where the magic happens! Our animation team take the data from our mocap sessions and begin applying it to the characters (which have likely been rigged by now and are ready for action). They’ll start with an initial pass, just loading the mocap onto the assets, selecting takes and blending what’s needed. We’ll then do further passes of polish and top it all off with the facial animation which depending on the project might be more performance capture or handkey.
Once this is all done our lighting, rendering and VFX wizards come into play who make it look beautiful. They add all the smoke, explosions and visual effects which are then passed along to our compositing team where everything comes together.
CGB – What are the biggest challenges in creating the CGI trailer?
D.M. – Every project is unique and have varying requirements so there are always creative and technical challenges to be had. If I had to pick one thing in particular I’d have to say balancing quality and scope. It’s always our ambition to aim for the highest fidelity we can produce so we need to be clever about the content we commit to producing. When we’re tasked with creating ambitious and epic CG sequences it’s up to the talented brains here to develop either efficient tools or processes that allow us to achieve what needs to be done. It’s challenging but also always fun.
CGB – Is there a main 3D software packages that your studio uses and why?
D.M. – It’s important we’re nimble as we often will receive assets in one package/engine or another. As a result the team here can pretty much take anything and either use it directly or get it into our package of choice. That being said we tend to use Maya and 3DS Max for a majority of our workflow, Zbrush for sculpting, photoshop for texturing along with Nuke for Compositing
CGB – Does your studio use any commercial software plug-ins or proprietary plug-ins, to help create the VFX or CGI cinematic productions? For example hair, water, cloth and particle FX?
D.M. – I’d say the team are pretty multi-skilled in this area. While we have our own proprietary tools for different areas of our pipeline we also use most industry standard software packages and plugins to create our VFX. Again it’s our talented team that are skilled across the board.
CGB – What renderer do you use for the majority of your cinematics and why?
D.M. – Most of our cinematics are rendered using Vray. At the moment this is supported by our suite of internal tools that allow us to get the most from the renderer. We constantly push the boundaries of what the renderer can do, and fantastically the software keeps up which is amazing. It’s also worth mentioning that we’re now using real-time engines for a lot of pre-rendered content which comes with its own advantageous, the least of all being the instantaneous visual feedback on the scenes we’re working on. It’s an exciting time as the gap between render farms and real-time render engines gets smaller and smaller.
CGB – The character animation work in your trailers looks very realistic. Can you explain what special hardware or software you use to capture the facial animation as well the body movements?
D.M. – We have our own 32 camera Vicon motion capture suite on site that we basically use whenever the need arises. It gives us great flexibility to jump in and grab some motion capture for shots whenever we like as well as for extended long form sessions where we work with actors, actresses, stunt performers and trained military personnel to get the best performance capture possible. We use this body capture system along with head mounted video cameras to capture facial performance at the same time. This ensures that all elements of the performance are seamlessly combined in the final result.
CGB – How important do you think playing video games is, and what role does it play in your artists’ creative process?
D.M. – As a child I’d play Sierra based point and click adventure games, (Gabriel Knight, Space Quest, Kings Quest, Quest for Glory) I’d be captivated ,inspired and moved by their storylines. No medium could ever ‘grab’ me in my adolescence as story driven video games could, and as graphics improved and Final Fantasy 7 came out (which was widely considered a cinematic masterpiece at the time) it was these goosebumps induced, awe inspiring moments which drove me to be involved the industry.
All of our current team-base are gamers, we talk about what games we’ve been playing over the weekend (currently fallout 4 and this war of mine), and late afternoon game time in the studio is a proving ground for settling studio disputes. It’s a big part of our personal and professional lives. And I think that passion shows through in the teams work.
CGB – What other inspiration do your artists draw from?
D.M. – The best inspiration comes from fellow artists, and hubs like Zbrush Central, CGsociety and Artstation, along with social channels such as CGhub and (of course) TheCGBros! are a powerful forum for artists to engage and be inspired within the community.
CGB – What is your favorite CGI project/film you’ve worked on so far?
D.M. – It’s like asking who’s you’re favorite child! Each production we work on represents a significant amount of love and labor so it’s definitely hard to discern. Recently we created animation for the entire LEGO Dimensions cinematic campaign. It involved Joel McHale from community, Christopher Lloyd from Back to the future and Alison Brie. It was incredible working with that level of talent in a live action/cg project.
CGB – Do you see any emerging technologies or innovations that will have significant impact on your studios creative process over the next few years?
D.M. – As the engines that produce the gaming content increase in fidelity, so does the animation and general content within. We’re receiving more requests to create turnkey animation solutions. Meaning we not only offer a pre-rendered announce cinematic, but also in-engine animation (idles/runs/Jumps which we mocap in our facility) and in-engine cut-scenes.
CGB – Where do you see the future of the VFX/CGI industry going?
D.M. – VR is certainly one that’s hard to ignore. Since Facebook announced its acquisition of Oculus for 2 Billion (US) last year, many companies stood up and took note. And it’s not just because of the amount of money, But also the fact that Facebook has access to Big data that many other corporations do not (which gained a lot of confidence for the market)…..aaaaand now I’m sounding like an investment adviser.. *Ahem* sorry, back on track.
CGB – What’s the most important thing you look for the demo reel?
D.M. – I’d have to say 3 categories; Quality first in their specific field, Followed by consistency of quality (I.e. can they maintain that same fidelity on different projects with varying challenges and obstacles), attention to detail third.
CGB – What is an absolute killer to a demo reel that shouldn’t be on there?
D.M. – A common mistake is to assume ‘the more you put on your reel the better and more diverse it will look’.
You may have a great portfolio, but if one shot is lacking in quality it will almost always be the shot that sticks the most in a recruiters minds.
My recommendation would be to include your best work, and leave anything out that you feel is lacking.
CGB – If you could give advice someone just starting an industry what would it be?
D.M. – An issue we hear a lot is ‘I can’t break into the industry because I don’t have a reel, and I don’t have a reel because I can’t break into the industry’.
One great way to circumvent the cycle is working on a personal project built specific for the recruiters/companies you are submitting to. Keep in mind what you’re passionate about, what they’re looking for and build it in your own time with the intent of showcasing it within your portfolio.
CGB – Do you think formal art education is important why and why not?
D.M. – That’s the incredible thing about the animation industry in general, your hire is generally based on your portfolio of work (not necessarily your formal education) so there’s no one specific fit to land a job. Some of our best artists who now go onto run workshops to teach others are self-taught, passionate artists.
With that in mind everyone is difference and each have alternate learning styles, some prefer to gain a formal tertiary education (masters in art etc.) to have a firm foundation to build upon. Others are self-taught and others will attend accelerated or online courses such as Animation Mentor etc.
Thank you for the opportunity CGBROS team, feel free to follow us on Facebook on Twitter where we regularly post new content!
Watch one of the latest amazing trailers created by Plastic Wax for the video game ‘Homefront: The Revolution’ which will be released in 2016.
Official Website – ( http://www.plasticwax.com/ )
Facebook – ( https://www.facebook.com/plasticwax )
Twitter – (https://twitter.com/RealPlasticWax)
Vimeo – (https://vimeo.com/channels/plasticwax)
You can see the trailer below: