Interview: East Croydon Cool talks CGI with Michael Dowd and Howard Gardner
East Croydon Cool speaks to the CGI artists who have been digitally tagging the Cronx with bizarre figments of their imaginations.
For a while now, Croydon residents and motion graphics designers Michael Dowd and Howard Gardner have been posting intriguing short CGI videos set in Croydon locations on their respective Instagram accounts, like these ones:
Croydon Digital teamed up with East Croydon Cool (a collaboration we’ve both been keen to make happen for a while!) to find out more about their work.
If you haven’t heard of it, East Croydon Cool is a curated guide to all things cool in the Cronx. The platform promotes all the great things that are happening in Croydon (with a particular focus on helping the Borough’s newest residents get to know their new neighbourhood). The website/blog and social media channels keep people up to date with local news, while the events programme helps residents meet other locals and the merchandise line fosters a sense of local pride. The ultimate aim is to encourage newcomers to become active and engaged local citizens to ensure the Croydon community continues to shine as bright as its new buildings do.
Having published numerous examples of Michael and Howard’s work on their Instagram channel, (which always achieve great engagement and interaction), East Croydon Cool were keen to learn more about the world of CGI.
This interview has been jointly published over on East Croydon Cool as part of their “East Croydon Cool talks…” series of interviews with local influencers and experts.
East Croydon Cool talks…CGI
CGI, visual effects, 3D graphics, motion graphics? That’s a lot of lingo for an already complicated subject, what’s the difference?!
I will try and give the least complicated answer I can! 3D graphics/animation are graphics made with a 3D software package such as Maya, Cinema 4D, Blender, or Houdini. These programs can make anything in 3 dimensions – think Toy Story. CGI is usually associated with 3D graphics and big blockbuster films like The Avengers, but it more broadly refers to any imagery a computer produces. Even something from Photoshop or Paint is considered CGI. Visual effects are where there is a mix between live action and CGI. Motion graphics are used more for multimedia projects. They are often animated abstract shapes, explainer videos, and logo animations – that type of stuff.
My current job has elements of all of these things, but I usually call myself a 3D motion graphics designer, or a 3D generalist, or just … ‘I work with computers’.
A complicated field will naturally grow its own terminology. The practices that you’ve mentioned are closely related to each other – and sometimes there’s even some overlap – but I’ll try and summarise:
CGI (or computer generated imagery) is a pretty loose umbrella term, covering anything from designing products through to animated films like Shrek or Finding Nemo. It tends to be associated more with 3-dimensional visuals.
3D graphics is kind of the same thing, albeit perhaps a bit more specific to stuff made with Blender, Maya, 3DS Max, rather than say Photoshop, which is a flat image. It might also apply to game design and increasingly it might include virtual reality.
Visual effects deals with the integration of 3D graphics with live action film. Often this is the most challenging area, as there is pressure for it to look convincing and seamless to an audience.
Motion graphics tends to deal less with realism and more with slick, punchy visuals, often seen as titles, logos and other on-screen information. We’re surrounded by these this all the time in news programmes, advertising and other digital media.
How did you get into the digital industry?
As a teenager in the early 2000s, I grew up making some absolutely horrendous comedy videos with my brother using my parents’ old video camera, after that I decided I needed some serious help. I studied media studies in college and then digital film at the SAE Institute in London. I began my first media role as a runner (mostly making teas and coffees) at a post production company in Soho. After making my 5000th coffee, I decided to go freelance. I did everything from filming bands at festivals to creating animated online videos. After 3 years, I then started at my current company, another post-production studio in Soho. I put my coffee making skills to good use again, but worked my way up to become a motion graphics designer within 3 somewhat painful years.
I started out studying graphics and fine art, first here in Croydon at the BRIT School and later at the Colchester Institute where I took my degree. Technology changed rather rapidly during this time and I found myself drifting towards digital book illustration, which later led me towards animation with Adobe Flash. As Flash began to decline in use, I took the decision to get re-trained in the use of visual effects software, which led me to enrol at Escape Studios and then go to my current role as a freelance VFX artist.
What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on to date?
I did some very subtle visual effects for the TV show Made in Chelsea. They were being sponsored by a mobile phone company and had to include a certain number of shots that featured the phone in it in some way. They didn’t manage to film it in enough shots, so I had to digitally create a 3D phone and add it in to certain scenes. They wanted it sitting on desks and tables etc., but these shots were moving, so I had to do something called 3D tracking to match the filmed camera footage with my 3D program. It was a very bizarre job for me, but a rewarding one as no one noticed it was a fake phone and I suppose that was the aim.
I relish any chance to be involved with any kind of film project which tells a story. I’ve had some of my best times working on science fiction and fantasy projects, but also some of my worst as the industry can be a bit of a minefield, especially to freelancers who are just starting out and easy to exploit. During quiet spells, over the course of about 4 years, I shot and edited my own science fiction film called Protein (yes, it’s set here in Croydon). I enjoyed working on that particularly because I got to design everything myself from the ground up!
What do you think of Croydon’s digital landscape?
I have only lived in Croydon for 3 years, but I have seen many new opportunities through affordable tech coming through, such as the VR café, Limitless VR, and my friend’s health and safety/fire safety courses using VR, Certified Skills UK: a way of people interacting to certain scenarios but within the safety of an office room. It’s great that this kind of tech is being used not only as entertainment, but also as a practical tool that can be used in the workplace and its great it’s all coming from/to Croydon.
I’m probably guilty of under-using it. One of my friends recently took me to TMRW and I was really impressed by what they have. I’ve dabbled a bit in 3D printing and I’d be interested in using some local services to get some objects manufactured based on my design work, but for now my main focus is on my own computer screen at home where I’m getting all the objects and scenes remotely designed. I’ve done some stints working on bigger projects for post-production houses, but these have all been based at offices up in Soho.
What do you like about creating visual effects using Croydon as the backdrop?
I started my Instagram page a few years ago to help inspire me to produce different kinds of content, give myself deadlines and set new challenges. At the start of my commute walking from my flat to East Croydon station, I started filming certain local landmarks and thought I could do something fun and add some visual effects. There are so many areas to film that give a unique vibe in Croydon, I was spoilt for choice. I filmed the background to my scenes on my phone, 3D tracked the footage and then started creating something in my 3D program.
Digital landscape aside, Croydon has a great backdrop for filmmaking! While brutalist architecture may not be to everyone’s taste, I happen to think the town has a great (albeit rather gritty) aesthetic and I got very excited in recent years when crews were here filming scenes for The Dark Knight Rises and Black Mirror. When I’ve shot my own films here I’ve purposely focused on some of the grimier concrete areas, several of which have already disappeared since. I guess in years to come this will be replaced by a shiny, ultra-modern look and it will be interesting to see how that looks on the screen!
How long does it take to create a motion graphics video?
For videos I create at my day job in Soho, a 3 minute animation could take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks full time, depending on the project and how many people are working on it. For the type of videos I upload to my Instagram, because they are normally quite short and around 15 to 30 seconds, they can take 4 to 5 days to complete. It is a lot of effort and time for such a short clip, but it’s very rewarding when they come together, and they definitely don’t always come together.
It depends on the complexity of what the client wants, how they want it delivered and – often most crucially – how well the client himself has thought through what he’s asking for. Sometimes the end product might be a 5 minute long demonstration video for instance, with 3D walkthroughs and whizzy annotations and it’s not unusual for a piece to be re-worked multiple times before all the parties are happy with it. I’d expect something like that to take a minimum of 2 weeks.
How can Croydon businesses integrate motion graphics into their marketing strategy?
I work on a wide variety of videos, from explainer videos that go online to explain a product or service, still 3D graphics that go into magazines, or videos used on platforms like Facebook or Twitter to create viral content to promote a brand, scheme or charity. Croydon businesses could use all of these avenues if they want to drive more traffic to their websites or to generate more buzz around a product launch etc.
Social media’s more important now than ever. Simply explaining an idea can appear quite a dull way of selling it, when you could instead put together an animated musical journey through your products, services, staff and premises. Always make something fun and memorable!
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Can anyone start making their own visual effects/motion graphics from home?
A lot of the programs I use are paid for and they can be quite expensive, but there are a lot of good free options out there. Anyone with a PC or Mac can download a 3D program called Blender. This has a bit of a steep learning curve, but there are many online tutorials for it – and it’s free!
Sure they can. Powerful computer hardware is always getting better and cheaper, there are no end to all the tutorials on Youtube which you could use to at least ‘get your toes wet’ in 3D graphics. If you don’t want to invest right away in the big industry-standard software packages you can practice with lots of good free programs. The biggest barrier I faced was time though; if you want to learn everything properly, hone your skills and build a portfolio you’ll need patience and be prepared for a few sleepless nights.
What are you most excited for the future of your industry?
I am excited for real time rendering. I recently made a 3-minute animation and it took over 80 hours to render, using 8 different PC machines at the same time. There are new technologies and hardware always being developed that will make this much quicker and mean less time waiting!
Real-time rendering has to be the most exciting prospect for me. Right now I still have to wait hours or even days for my computer to churn out realistic-looking high resolution animations. Graphics cards are getting better and better and various innovations from the gaming world are also bleeding into the animation world and helping to speed the process up. It won’t be long until photo-realistic images can be affordably designed in real time without any sort of hardware lag. I believe that will make the creative process vastly more productive.