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Interview with Philip Edward Alexy (CGI Animator)
Date of publishing: 21st September 2005

Philip Edward Alexy Philip Edward Alexy is a Character/Creature/Effects CGI Animator and worked on several TV shows and movies such as Star Wars Episode 1, Deep Impact, Flubber, Jumanji, Casper, Jack Frost, 101 Dalmatians, ... and he made the Antarctica Dome for the Stargate SG-1 episode "Frozen" (season 6). You can have more informations and details on his work and resume on his website: http://www.flyingsheep.org

Gilles Nuytens: First thank you for taking a few of your time to answer these questions. Can you describe the work you are doing, the different parts of it ?
Philip: Well, right now I am part of a team that is developing a children's TV series for the international market called Plimmy and Pykko. Here is the website: http://www.styles-and-stories.com/projects-plimmy.htm
What I really like about this project is not just that I am the animation supervisor (ahh, the power...the POWER! Mwhahahahaha...ahem!), but I also have a hand in the screenplays, look, character design, and marketing.

Gilles Nuytens: More specifically, can you describe the different steps of digital effects from the beginning of the project to the final product, when the episode/movie is ready for screening?
Philip: In digital effects, things always start with a bull-session with the clients to see exactly what they are looking for in that series/episode/movie. Usually, they have some concept drawings or rough storyboards with them so we can decide what we can or can't do in the time provided and the budget they have. Second is refining the 'boards and designs until we have something we all can agree on, sometimes we take the concept drawing and do some fooling about in Photoshop or make some basic CG models. On a TV series, we pretty well go from there to where they are shooting on set. Hopefully, and this isn't always the case, we have a CG supervisor there at the shooting to advise them. When we get the shot film, or plates, we start integrating the effects, be it an explosion, set extension, or character/creature animation. After a few screenings with the client, we do the final composite with colour correction and other fun CG-to-video stuff, and they cut it into the show. Now on a film project, there is usually a bigger budget so we spend more time in the planning stage, usually because we need to render out in a higher resolution and, to be frank, a little higher quality. So usually the storyboarding phase is longer and we usually do 3d animatics to help set up camera angles and the like.

Stargate SG-1 - Antarctica Dome
The Antarctica Dome from Stargate SG-1, a recreation of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

Gilles Nuytens: You have used a lot of 3D softwares, which one is for you the best or at least your favorite one and why ? Which software could you recommend for beginners?
Philip: Well, and this is hoping Alias will have a nice check for me in the mail soon, I have to say that Maya is my favourite so far for overall use in a CG production. Now this isn't saying that the others don't have their strengths (and weakness) as well. I found that Houdini has the best realistic particle package I have ever seen, while its interface is the hardest to master. Its approach to CG is unlike any other package out there and it takes a while to get into their mindset. Lightwave is a good, overall package to TV and productions on a tight budget, but their basic animation tools are somewhat lacking. XSI is also a very good package and I love the way MentalRay is integrated, but it doesn't have some of the strengths of interface and intuitive module use that Maya has. And 3DStudioMax...well, it does have it's strength for use in Games and non-linear animation, but not my choice package for CGI effects.

Gilles Nuytens: What is the part you prefer in your job? 3D modeling, animation, texturing, lightning, post work with Photoshop? And why?
Philip: I prefer animation. It is what I trained in and what I love. I do a little dabbling in modeling and editing, but I always go back to animation.

Gilles Nuytens: You made this Antarctica dome for the episode of Stargate that we can see in season 6, is it also your work that we see in the pilot of Atlantis?
Philip: Gosh...I have to say I haven't seen any of the new series so I couldn't say.
More information about the dome:"The team had a two week deadline to do a test: take a still of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and recreate it in full 3D without using the cheat of projection mapping. I am happy to say that my team performed amazingly and when the effects supervisor from Stargate saw the finished product, he was very impressed!" (from: http://www.flyingsheep.org/work/tv/html/tv_stg.html)

Gilles Nuytens: Will you work again for Stargate or have you been contacted to work on other popular shows such as Galactica?
Philip: If offered, I would be interested to work on either of these shows if there was some good character stuff to work on.

Gilles Nuytens: Does the CGI artists meet sometimes the cast of the shows or movies from the movies you are working on? Anything to tell about that?
Philip: Sometimes. I have met most of the directors of shows I have worked on (like George Lucas, Mimi Leder and Chuck Russel) but really don't meet many of the stars. I have met Cathy Moriarty who played Carrigan in “Casper” and the three voice actors for the ghosts, Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, and Brad Garrett (who plays Ray's older brother on “Everybody Loves Raymond”). I also had the chance to meet Sean Connery once. I saw him just for a minute or so. I ALMOST got to meet Robin Williams twice, but, in fact, never did. But the one person that I did meet, that wasn't on the cast of the movies I have worked on, but meant the most for me personally, was Chuck Jones . He came to ILM twice to talk about his life and his work and the second time, I was actually able to shake the man's hand. When he passed away, it was a very sad day.

Star Wars Episode 1 - Gungan Ground Battle Sequence
Star Wars, Episode 1: Gungan Ground Battle Sequence

Gilles Nuytens: What is for you the most difficult part of your job ? And what would be your biggest challenge ? Could you explain?
Philip: The most difficult part of my job is knowing when to stop working on a shot. I always want to make a little bit better The biggest challenge is working in a team environment...everyone has their own ideas and strenghts and weaknesses. Being a supervisor means knowing how lead and direct these great creative forces to what the client wants. And this is still something I have lots to learn and work very hard at.

Gilles Nuytens: Your are specialized in 3D animation, can you describe the different steps of animating a scene, once you have all the information, storyboards, etc. from the client ?
Philip: Well, first thing is to see if there needs to be any matchmoving to do...usually you have to do a little even for a non-moving camera shots, just to get some
sense of the space the shot takes place. Usually you get this information from the VFX sup on set, stuff like measurements or, at least, lens information. But there have been times where I have had NO info from the shoot and just had to guess. Next is to see if my character/creature has any interact with objects in the plate...if so, that's another thing I should get matchmoved. Then it is animation time! Usually I go thru blocking out the scene using the lo-res version of the model and then do a rough composite and show it to the client, to see if the shot is going in the direction they want. If I get the okay, I finesse the animation, showing it at least two more times to the client. There have been many a time when at these two later steps I get asked to redo the entire scene...it is frustrating, to be sure, but they pay the bills. When we finally get to the point that everyone is happy with my animation, I had it off to the technical director and they do all their lighting and texturing goodness. SOmetimes I get called back to tweak a little, but that's about it for me, the animator.

Gilles Nuytens: What modeling technics do you prefer ? Box modeling or poly by poly ? And what is easier to learn?
Philip: I think polygonal modeling is the easiest but I am not sure what you mean by box or poly-by-poly.

Gilles Nuytens: For you what is easier, to work with organic stuff like Jar Jar, or static (technical things or buildings) stuff?
Philip: Well, buildings are pretty easy since they don't move or anything (usually) but the hardest because if you don't texture and light them just right, it stands out (look at me...I'm a CG effect...Ain't I cool!!!). I love working with organic creatures being an animator (but I don't know if I would classify Jar Jar as a character...doesn't a charatcer need a personality of some type?)

Gilles Nuytens: What is the best visual effect in a movie, or TV series you ever saw?
Philip: Ok, this is VERY old school and when you look back on it now, you can see problems like matte edges and the like, but the effect that always gives me goosebumps is the Asteroid Sequence from “Empire Strikes Back”. Wowie wow wow!

Gilles Nuytens: And what are your models, the people whose works are the reference in your work ?
Philip: I have been told I have a lot of the old Waner Bros. Style in my animation, Chuck Jones (and Daffy Duck) being one of my heroes I suppose I am not surprised this is the case. I tend to go a little overboard with my slap-stick and find that I like to look at the old “Loony Toons” and “Ren and Stimpy” cartoons for inspiration.


Interview by Gilles Nuytens for The Scifi World


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