Jake Mengers is a veteran VFX professional of 20 years, whose 3D generalist skill set has enabled him to carve out a successful career directing award winning advertising campaigns. Having briefly tried his hand as an animator in feature films, Jake found his niche working on commercials for London’s top VFX studios. We talked to him about his career path, experience in the ever shifting world of VFX and lessons learned so far in his distinguished career.
What’s the difference you’ve experienced between advertising and feature film productions?
It’s an interesting crossover between film and advertising. Because we use the same tools people tend to bundle us together as the same industry, but personally I find them completely different. They are almost worlds apart and artist crossover is probably not a great idea either, in my opinion, as the ways of working are so different. It’s not that you aren’t capable, or one is better or worse, but the way of working is so different.
I think if you work long enough in film you become redundant to the advertising trade in some ways, because you become the way the film industry needs you to work. Film is more single discipline, multiple artists, with a large production line of single discipline artists. Especially at the bigger film studios, the job description is very rigid, the tools are very heavily programmed and preset so that you can’t stray too far from what is the brief of that feature and it’s hard to freestyle or bring too much to it because it’s more controlled from the supervisors. Amazing work gets done but it’s a completely different mentality to the sort of boutique advertising thing, whereby, you need to be totally cross disciplined – you need to be a generalist: one day you might be tracking, next day you may be lighting, the next modelling. It’s not that guys in features can’t do that, it’s just that when you have enough years just doing your single discipline; you sort of drop the rest, and it doesn’t become as efficient as it could be.
I tend to find that people who switch from film to advertising tend to sit around waiting for things to arrive on their desk instead of being proactive in just doing it and picking it up themselves. A little team of six people can be incredibly productive in advertising, whereas it might take a team of 16 people to do the same work in film’s production line environment; it’s quite a different thing. I’m speaking broadly. I have worked with film guys in advertising who are brilliant, so I’m not saying it’s not really indicative of talent, nor does it suggest who is good or not; there’s a lot of talented people out there.
“I think if you work long enough in film you become redundant to the advertising trade in some ways, because you become the way the film industry needs you to work”
What would your advice be for someone considering pursuing a career in film or advertising?
It’s interesting, I always wanted to do stuff so that I could learn it for myself. My real motivation was being able to go home and do my own projects, so what I learned enabled me to do that. I was more driven to learn all the various tools because I needed to use them myself rather than just learning one particular thing. When I was starting, the same department did features and commercials, there was no split. 17 years ago when we were doing the old Bond films, there were probably six of us in the advertising department at MPC, and we did everything: all the commercials, all the features, the whole shebang.
The industry has changed considerably. I did some feature work a while back at Double Negative for a couple years, and I found it great, but I think really for an artist to choose between film and advertising is a tricky thing, because I don’t think the industry has much longevity for an artist. I certainly didn’t go into 3D thinking I would still be doing it in my fifties; it didn’t even cross my mind that would be possible. I don’t think that a lot of people getting into the industry really know what they want; I certainly didn’t. My intention was just to be a 3D artist, and once I became that, my ambition changed and I wanted to try commercials, then features and then directing. But I’d be very surprised if anyone gets into the industry with the intention of just working on advertising or film imagining that they would end their career there. I can’t imagine someone wanting to be an operator by the time they retire; I would have thought they would be dead first.
How did you get your foot into the industry?
It was early days for 3D, and very few places had a 3D department in London. MPC was just six people, and now its up in the hundreds. I started my career as a photo retoucher, but then I saved up some money and found a course in Montreal. It was the home of all the sorts of software companies like Soft Image, Alias WaveFront (which was the precursor to Maya) and Alias PowerAnimator Front, who were based in Toronto. I found this course where they teach you for two months and then you spend a month putting together a showreel. That showreel bit seemed to be the problem for me. I’d learnt 3D in London by sitting on a computer in down time and going through tutorials, but I found that while it’s all very well and good to approach a company and say “I can do 3D”, when they say ‘OK show me’ – you need a showreel. It’s one thing learning how to use software, but actually putting together a reel or a piece of work in downtime is nigh on impossible. So this course was great as it gave me time to work with a teacher and put together a project, leaving the course with something in hand that I could take around to the companies; and that’s how I got the job at MPC.
Was there a eureka moment of inspiration that inspired you to pursue a career in CG?
Funnily enough there normally is for most people, but what motivated me was the challenge to learn. I learnt Photoshop pretty quickly and I know there’s a lot of depth to Photoshop and you never really learn it, you can always learn more, but ultimately I got my head around the tools in a matter of a few days. Originally I thought I was going to be a retoucher, but when I discovered 3D, I just saw the endless possibilities. It felt like a real challenge with 3D, I couldn’t see a career in the more simple Photoshop type tools because I could see my mum learning that in her kitchen. If you look at film making: you have your cameraman, lighting man, editor, there’s a job for each of these individual people. In 3D animation you can assume the role of each of these different people and yet each of these jobs in itself is a full time profession and craft for those people’s entire careers. It highlighted to me the depth of knowledge needed to be a success in this industry, because you are effectively taking on eight other people’s job descriptions. Assuming you know everything as the sole operator who is turning it out in 3D is quite naive.
It’s quite humbling and challenging when you realise the depth of what’s on the table. You can be cocky and not engage with it, assume you know it all, or you can really study it, read up, and go into depth perfecting your craft. It depends on how well you engage with the industry, and how much you want to develop. You can just make something, or you can have a real ambition to learn and master everything you can and treat it like a proper profession. An artist coming into the industry needs to know it’s a proper industry with so many facets and so much depth. Newcomers should enter the industry with open eyes as it takes a good few years to realise the possibilities, and that’s when it becomes pretty exciting for people.
“You can just make something, or you can have a real ambition to learn and master everything you can and treat it like a proper profession.”
What’s the process of directing a commercial?
I tend to do more animation orientated advertising: characters, creatures, that sort of stuff. I’ve done all sorts of things but it tends to be more of the character stuff that comes to me. A script will come in and the production company will put you up for it, you’ll start trying to put together an idea based on a script. What you generally try to do as the director is not just follow the script but try and bring something to it. By the time the script leaves you and goes into storyboarding and starts being treated on, you would then need to write a treatment for the client to buy into you. Generally you are up against a bunch of other directors at this point, all writing treatments trying to pitch on the job. Should you be lucky enough to get confirmed on it, there is a variety of approaches: if it’s shoot heavy you would obviously organise the shoot and production side of it, and then if it’s post heavy you can spend anything up to three months or longer doing your post production.
I tend to (for characters that I work on) cast a real person to reference for these characters, even like the little bear that sits on the sofa selling biscuits, that’s actually very closely animated according to a real person’s actions. I’ve got my guy who I hire-in to be the bear, and every time I get a new advert I sit him down on the sofa and we bash it out. We get the script in, we run through it, and people perform the role of the bear. We spend the morning doing that, we spend the afternoon doing facial capture, then I give all the reference to the 3D artist and they’re off going through a process of almost rotoscoping and copying. What’s important for me in animation is that I like to do stuff that has a little bit of comedy in there, and comedy needs timing, and timing of comedy is very hard to do in 3D. If you say to someone, “Keep your eyes closed and open them just as we hand this thing to you – It’s gonna be funnier.” – you can do that with an actor ten times in one minute. Or you can say, “Fall over and sort of look dizzy.” But imagine trying to animate that in 3D, it’s hard work, you’re talking days of work, instead of a matter of seconds for a guy performing.
When you have a bunch of clients you are working with and multiple layers of approval as you have with advertising, the best way is to get it filmed live before you animate it in 3D. Then you can see if everyone else finds it funny and are happy with your timings of a real person before you apply it to the 3D model. That way you get approval before you waste your time doing multiple versions of the shot. After the 3D process, we have the compositing process, where we take all the nicely lit 3D and make it even nicer in comp. Generally you will have a sound session where you’ll put together some voice over and special effects and sound design and that’s it! It’s the same pipeline as film but over a much shorter period of time.
What are some of your personal favourite projects that you have worked on?
They’ve all been quite fun looking back. I think probably the favourite would be possibly a Levi ad where they all run through brick walls and up trees, called ‘Levi’s Odyssey’ a Jonathan Glazer ad from way back (when Jake was Lead Artist at Framestore 2002). I can watch it till this day and I still think it’s a great advert, not because of what I did or what we did in 3D, I just think it’s a great advert, full stop. When I finished it, I felt like I was going to finish my career in 3D. It was that hard. It really pushed us to the limit. It was a long, long time ago and there were exploding walls and every tree in that forest was 3D. The tools at that time were pretty limited, so it was doubly rewarding to be able to look back on it almost 15 years later and still feel good about it is quite rare. It’s the one I look back on most fondly. It wasn’t a huge award winner. It was sort of before the awards as I don’t think the VES started until a few years after.
“When I finished it (Levi’s Odyssey) I felt like I was going to finish my career in 3D, it was that hard, it really pushed us to the limit”
I’ve done a number of spots for Daniel Kleinman over the years, which is always fun to do, he’s a great director to work for. I worked as Creative Director on something recently – “The moonwalking pony” for Three mobile, which did pretty well, and another fun one to do. The director, Dougal Wilson, is a good guy to work for; his film sets are quite different to other sets and you learn a lot. He’s a director who engages 100% with the work he does, he absolutely lives and breathes it from the moment he gets confirmed on a job till the moment he delivers a job, and that is quite refreshing to see. A lot of advertising directors don’t really engage with the CG process. To work with Dougal who absolutely does engage every second until delivery, was nice.
Why do you think it’s hard for good artists to find good contracts, and where do you see the disconnect?
I think part of the problem is that the industry is massively saturated with artists and not all of them are great. I think that is down to when the industry exploded it called upon an awful lot of artists to fill the needs, and anyone who touched 3D Max or Maya or opened a bit of software suddenly felt they were a 3D artist. A lot of people applied and got these jobs, and I think it wasn’t too long after that the industry realised that they were actually dysfunctional. Because they hadn’t hired professionals, it kicked back with the repercussion of a few projects going pear shaped that had all these full time employees. The companies got a bit stung when their projects got put on the back burner leaving them with all these salaries to pay. So everyone went on to more perma-lance or free-lance contracts to avoid that. So that if the film got canned, the company wasn’t stuck with 100 peoples’ salaries to pay while it waited for the film to come back online. In a sense, that kind of screwed the industry a little bit because it made it so transient. People could just go from one project to another and only a few artists were really being kept and rewarded for their work. The bottleneck of this is something that I think is part of the problem. Only a few people on a team are kept at a company on a permanent basis to take on whatever the next job might be. The rest of the people are sort of transient artists who basically just follow the tax benefits system around the world – so whichever country offers the most tax rebate on doing a feature – that’s where all the production companies tend to gather, and so you have a lot in Canada, and a lot here (in the UK). It’s a very odd thing – there’s so much movement, I think it would be really hard to find what you like, the right job, and then it all changes. They don’t keep on teams across all their features. They tend to recruit, renew the team, re-recruit, renew the team, re-recruit.
I think in advertising you probably find it easier to find what you like and stick with it. But another problem is that being an amazing artist doesn’t get you an amazing job, because actually a lot of companies are looking to be cost effective in the 3D world. The squeeze on budgets on advertising is much the same as on features. Squeezing budgets ultimately means that the company doesn’t hire the most expensive artists. Companies often need to stagger their teams, you’ll get one lead, then you get a heavy chunk of mid-level people, and some juniors. Companies can’t always afford to have three experienced guys on the job, and so actually the more experience you get the harder it is to find the right job, I think.
I think with films, I’m probably not in the best person to comment on it. Often people can find work, but the way the industry has gone, artists are kind of extracted of their power and put into a sort of pipeline where they are told what they can and can’t do. The bigger the feature and team, the bigger the production line, and the less creative freedom there is for what your bespoke role is. That pipeline process, for me, feels very uncreative. I feel as an artist that I want to be able to experiment with new tools and try to find better solutions, and if it’s lit in a certain way, I want to look at other options – to re-light it to make it look even better. I think you are often told to just tow the line, which for me was a big reason why I didn’t continue to work in features. I like to develop my own techniques. Why can’t people find the right jobs (in film)? Not sure that is the situation, I just don’t think artists are being rewarded within those jobs, and they may find that actually it is the right place but a different structure might sort it out for them.
If you were hiring for your department in advertising, what would you be looking for in a candidate?
Advertising is the land of generalists. Whatever your discipline, whatever your skill-set – I’m sure most people have a strong area – it’s important that they have a bit of breadth to that. You could be an amazing coder, but it would also really help if they had a very good knowledge of other aspects. Certain areas I think don’t require that, like animation is probably one of the few where you can just be an animator and it be a full-time lifelong job. But as an operator in advertising I look for someone generalist. So they could perhaps do a little bit of animation, might be able to do a bit of rigging, they certainly would be able to light and texture, and do R&D development stuff. If someone came to me who was an amazing modeller, and just focused on ZBrush, I don’t think I would ever give them a job, because it’s not cost effective to have someone like that. What happens when there’s no ZBrush to do? You need someone who can pick up on anything.
I also think the people who have a more generalist ambitions have much greater aspirations to be successful in 3D. I think sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be just a modeller, but there’s no room for that in my department of advertising I’m afraid. So I look for cross-discipline, and client facing is also very important. The industry is saturated with people that are often quite happy to sit with their headphones on in front of their screen and at 6:30pm taking the headphones off and going home, and that doesn’t work for advertising. You need to engage with clients, you will sit very closely with directors, you need to be client facing. I think it’s quite a rare attribute for 3D artists to be honest. We are quite a nerdy generation, which doesn’t often lend itself to being client facing. That is what I would look for in someone who could be a big success for the future and not just to fill in a gap for now.
“The industry is saturated with people that are often quite happy to sit with their headphones on and sitting in front of their screen and at 6:30pm taking the headphones off and going home, and that doesn’t work for advertising.”
What do you love and hate about being a professional artist?
I think just stimulating one’s creative side. Ultimately you can sit down with a mathematician and give them lots of sums to do and they’ll probably be content. I think with an artist you give them lots of pictures to make and likewise they are probably content, and that for me has always been the case. I’ve always felt challenged, and there’s always something new. We are in an ever-changing industry. We are basically on a crest of a wave of a whole new style of imagery, and that for me is really exciting. It feels like there are huge opportunities ahead for people in the industry because it’s just starting out and it’s potential is so huge, and already it’s tenfold on what it was when I started. I find that very satisfying to know that you are in that kind of industry.
“I’ve always felt challenged, and there’s always something new, we are in an ever changing industry, we are basically on a crest of a wave of a whole new style of imagery, and that for me is really exciting.”
It’s a job that is a lifetime job. It’s not a daytime job. Anyone involved in art and design and those sorts of things you basically live and breathe it. I can’t stop what I’m doing at the end of the day and just go home to the kids and not think about it. I think it’s there, it’s always there, and you never really let it go, no matter how much you think you can just put down your tools and carry on. For me it just keeps on going. I often even cannot sleep through concentration on the actual project I’m on. It’s almost all-engrossing and all-encompassing. I find this both very stimulating and very tiring.
The fact that the industry is so fresh and new, means there is little precedent for what people might go on to be doing which can be tough on people. It’s not an industry like banking where you can see your manager getting fat bonuses and say, “One day that will be me.” There isn’t such a thing to aspire to in our industry because it’s only 15-20 years old. I think that’s quite tough to enter an industry where you don’t really know where you will end up. Instead I would look at my manager and see bags under his eyes and scruffy clothes and think, “One day that’ll be me!”. The natural progression would be to go from being an artist/operator to VFX supervision or management, but I think the industry can be so tough on people, it’s so demanding creatively and time consuming that I don’t think anyone has the longevity to roll out the years in that way. So at some point or another, people often have to find a new career, and people are entering a career where there is no lifelong aim, and they possibly don’t even know that when they are starting off. I think it’s unlikely that an artist would enter the industry as an operator and in 30 years time leave as one. Z