Armando “Doc” Ricalde, Co-Founder & Director of Technology at Cluster Studio in Mexico City, reveals how a physicist became an animator, and the importance of a good chair.
Tell us about Cluster Studio.My partners and I started doing 3D animation for commercials as a collective of freelancers in 2003. We worked out of an apartment we affectionately dubbed “The Shire,” but quickly realized that we needed a bigger space if wanted to handle larger projects and have customers view us as a company rather than a just group of freelancers, so Cluster Studio was born. Now, we are one of the largest commercial visual effects companies in Mexico and have a staff of 50.
Why has Cluster Studio been so successful?
We have high quality standards, deliver on time and offer excellent customer care. If our clients have a problem, we help them solve it – whether it’s creative, technical or of some other nature.
What’s a day in the life of Armando like?I wake up every day at 6:30am to shower then help my wife get our two kids ready for the day. I walk the kids to school, come back home to eat breakfast then drive to Cluster Studio. I usually get in around 9am or 9:30am to prep before everyone else arrives at 10am. I like to have some time to myself to organize because things can get so crazy. We have meetings in the morning that cover different topics depending on the day – like on Mondays, we plan for the whole week, with the all of the studio reviewing projects and deadlines. Working in commercials, we often have to deal with more than 10 simultaneous projects – sometimes even 20. We eat lunch at 2pm, which we cater in the office. We offer post and finishing services so there is a lot of client traffic here. In the afternoon, I usually have meetings with the R&D team and the Systems Administration team to review work and task progress. Sometimes I am also supervising a project, so I may need to review shots and I generally spend some time in the day shaping the pipeline. I’m constantly modifying the pipeline and trying to perfect it; it’s never-ending work. Most days I leave around 8pm but it might be closer to 10pm if we’re under deadline.
What are the three most important things in your office?My computer, a picture of my wife and sons—to remember why we do all of this—and my chair; I have a new Herman Miller chair. We spend so many hours a day at our desks so you need to have a nice place to sit.
What tools do you use in-house at Cluster?Maya is our primary 3D tool. We also use 3ds Max, MentalRay, ZBrush, Mudbox, Modo, MARI, NUKE, HIERO, Pixar’s RenderMan, Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, CINEMA 4D, Storyboard Pro, Premiere, Final Cut, Smoke, Flame, Baselight, PFClean, FFmpeg, ImageMagick, Google Apps (Gmail, Calendar, Drive, YouTube, etc), Libre Office, dcraw and pfstools, Github, Bitbucket, Python (to glue everything together) and of course, Shotgun.
As far as proprietary tools that we’ve created for Shotgun, we’re currently using about 26 custom Apps, which are basically scripts mostly written in Python. Our most useful Apps create bid quotes, schedule jobs, generate slates and automate similar tasks. Some Apps have GUIs written in PyQt, some are standalone Apps and others integrate with our main applications like Maya, NUKE and Flame. We also have a C++ App compiled for Flame and Smoke to automatically create projects using information from Shotgun.
Which in-house tool are you most proud of?I think our Shotgun App to create quotes while bidding, csQuotes. It’s funny because it is a tool used by producers, not artists. I have wanted to have something like this for a long time and it is changing the way we see our business. Before csQuotes, our producers used local spreadsheets (not in the cloud) to do quotations while bidding. The criteria wasn’t unified, the format wasn’t consistent and there wasn’t an easy way to know what they were bidding for or how much potential money they represented. Now everything is in Shotgun and linked to our clients: advertising agencies, production companies, etc. I can see the necessary information laid out in graphs, which is much faster and easier for analyzing data in order to make decisions. The same tool is used to send all this information directly to the accounting department so they can issue the corresponding invoice (also logged in Shotgun), so we can track this very easy. Since the project is also created automatically in Shotgun and in the filesystem thanks to the Pipeline Toolkit, everybody can start working right away. It feels so good when your dreams finally come true.
How much effort do you focus on building out the pipeline?For about two years now, when I’m not in meetings with clients, training someone or doing research about new technologies (I have to wear so many hats), my time is devoted to the pipeline. So, a lot of time and effort is invested. We have two full time developers working on the pipeline everyday, plus the system administrator, who implements things needed on the servers and workstations side (when not providing maintenance or support).
Why is it important to pay such close attention to your pipeline?Visual effects is complex and requires teamwork from people across disciplines using various tools. Artists (even incredibly talented ones) are only human and a solid, flexible pipeline helps us work smart and minimize mistakes. When necessary data and information flow across the studio’s departments with the least possible effort, everyone can focus on their actual jobs and responsibilities, where they really shine, and not waste time managing data and performing repetitive tasks over and over again. I always say, let the computers do what the humans usually fail to do, that's why we invented them, isn't it?
What inspires you?Every day I’m probably inspired by something a little different but I don’t really stop and think about it. Sometimes I’m inspired by my family or by others’ work, like I see something really cool that’s been done by an artist or studio. I’m often inspired by challenges that I might face in my work. I think about the speech that JFK gave when the US was going to the moon and he said they were doing it because it wasn’t easy, but because it was hard. Sometimes I am inspired by the challenge of doing something unique just because it’s really hard to do.
How do you do to stay connected to the artist community?With the Internet, it’s really easy to interact through online forums, email lists and at events like SIGGRAPH. Shotgun also provides a great avenue for connecting. There’s a big online community of people from studios all over the world asking for help or sharing insight. Shotgun’s collaborative spirit spills into their user base that actively communicates about best pipeline practices. A guy from Montreal, Dave Lajoie-the Director of R&D at Digital District (http://www.linkedin.com/in/davelajoie) recently started a local Shotgun user group but with technologies like Google Hangout, these events aren’t limited to one geographical area anymore. The user group meetings are broadcast online and anyone can interact and actively participate as if they were there in the room. It’s not hard to stay connected; you just have to be willing to participate and offer help—not just ask for help. Sharing our Shotgun tips has been a great way for us to stay connected, build credibility in the global community and gain exposure for our work. Because so many of the creative companies that we admire, like Psyop for example, are also active in the Shotgun developer community, it’s also been a great way for us to build relationships.
This year, we started a technical blog (http://leftbrain.clusterstudio.com/) where we share knowledge about developments here at Cluster in an effort to give back to a community that has been so generous in sharing with us. We programmed the first version of the integration for Hiero in Shotgun Pipeline Toolkit and sent it to Shotgun when we finished. They continued developing it and released it to the community, which has been really cool. When we started using Shotgun, we are quite small relative to studios around the world. Now a lot of studios that we really admire know who we are because we share a lot of tools through forums and user group meetings. It’s a really strong community and everyone is open to giving back something because so much of using Shotgun is being part of that group, sharing what we’ve learned in our respective pipeline experience.