Monthly profile: Mathieu Leclaire, Graduate from the Film and Television Program

24 September 2012

Interview with Mathieu Leclaire, Graduate from the 3D Animation and Visual Effects for the Film and Televesion program, Fall 2003 and Head of the R&D Department at Hybride Technologies.

1. Where do you work and what is your job?
I am part of the R&D (Research and Development) team at Hybride Technologies (a Ubisoft division since 2008) where I work since 2005. My work consists of analysing a production’s challenges in order to create either a new process or new tools that will help deliver our SFX shots. Mostly, I take care of the creation of tools for simulation, rendering and rigging.

2. Why did you choose a career in 3D?
Actually, it was a long process. When I was younger, I was good with puzzles, assembling Lego, etc. and very good in mathematics. During my third year high school, I discovered programming. At first, I didn’t enjoy it, until the day when I had to program my first video games and their layout. Back then, I didn’t realize that it was the visual aspect that fascinated me, but I quickly developed a passion for programming and computers. Around the same time, I started to be passionate about every aspect of cinema. Even though I loved all the aspects of movie making, I was most interested by the visual side and everything tied to cinematography.

In 1996, I went and saw “Lost in Space”. Personally, I didn’t think the movie was very good but I was impressed by the visual effects! It was at the beginning of the movie, where there was a 3D battle between spaceships, that I had a flash: I realized that I could combine my strength in technology (programming and computers) with my passion to create movies! 3D animation became, for me, the ultimate career goal. To be able to use a computer into order to turn any concept in images? I was in love with the idea! I always had a lot of imagination and ideas that I dreamt to turn into animated pictures. I decided to learn everything there was to learn to create the best pictures ever using this new technology.

3. How did Centre NAD help you to start your career in 3D?
I started at Centre NAD after finishing my Bachelor degree in Computer Sciences. Unfortunately, during my university studies, there weren’t many courses that motivated me. I started at NAD with the idea that programming would only be a tool to help me out in difficult situations and that I wouldn’t be using it too much. However, I was exhorted to develop my talents in programming and, because of that advice, I remembered why I was so passionate about computer programming when I was younger. Now that I could use modern tools, I quickly understood that by combining the artistic aspect with technical tools, the possibilities were endless.

Attending Centre NAD allowed me to understand the techniques and tools used in production, as well as they could and couldn’t do. Using my technical knowledge, I could now create new ways to go around the limitations imposed by the software and that’s how I entered the industry. Very few people possess these two skills: artists usually have very little technical knowledge while programmers don’t fully understand what the artists are up to. A lot of companies are looking for people who have a profile like mine so it’s easier to find a job in the industry when you do.

 4. Tell me about your professional experience.
After university and a crazy year at Centre NAD, I took a few months of vacation. I then sent some resumes and demo around and Hybride contacted me right away. The timing was perfect. The studio had just finished “Sin City” and started working on “The Adventure of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3D”. They were looking for 3D tracking artists and liked my profile even though, at the time, they only had tracking jobs to offer. I jumped at the chance to start at Hybride. I wanted to work and be around professionals to show them my potential. It worked.I was offered a permanent job as a R&D programmer.

At first, when I shared my ideas with the group, people found me ambitious, borderline crazy. They still gave me the space and time to develop my concepts while the rest of the team worked on backup solutions in case I couldn’t deliver mine within the production deadlines. After many assignments, all successfully achieved, I entered the team leaders’ group. I was now part of the group which decided how each new challenge would be met. I could still deliver new tools and processes that were original, efficient and innovating. This is when the new R&D department was created, which I still manage today. I am also part of the Ubisoft R&D team, where efforts are combined to create tools and processes that can be used both in video games and in VFX.

5. What do you like about your job and why?
Challenges! I just love when a client comes in with a request that seems impossible. I love taking part in a meeting where we all scratch our heads and pitch ideas until we find a few worth exploring and we can draw up a game plan. Personally, the two moments I love more are: the design of the tool’s first version – the first tryout where we realize the technique will work (it is not the final result but suddenly, impossible becomes possible), and when we see the scene using the final results – all artists had time to work their magic, giving the scene a perfectly realistic feel.

I also love the friendship that grows between coworkers: united in our passions, together we march to war and everyone will give the best of themselves to help complete the work of others. We have so much fun working together!

6. What qualities are required to succeed in your field?
In R&D, you must have good technical skills combined with a strong thirst for learning and the desire to improve constantly. You also need imagination in order to design new processes and you must keep a good relationship with your coworkers to better grasp their needs and goals.

Also, you must be flexible since there are always surprises along the way.  A client often changes his mind and we often have to completely redo the work we’ve done. With time, we are able to anticipate the possible changes so, from the start, we give our tools and processes flexibility but clients often find ways to surprise us and ask for THE thing the tool wasn’t designed for. You need to be patient! Also, some changes can break your heart considering the amount of time and sweat you’ve poured into it, but it’s part of the job. Often, a huge part of your work gets cut from the project, replaced by something else or is modified to the point where is not yours anymore. At that point, you have to stay flexible since the only constant in our line of work is change!

7. Do you have any advice to students who wish to make a career in 3D?
I do have lots of advices to give them, but I’ll stick with two key points:

Communication between departments is very important. You must always listen to know the needs and limitations of other departments. For instance, an animator can create awesome animations but if the simulation department have to simulate hair and cloth deformations, they will have technical constraints to follow. It’s important to go and see the people who will end up with your work to make sure they won’t have any problem on their end. Problems in production are often caused by misunderstanding of the needs and limitations between departments.

My second advice is to always seek improvement, to learn and to perfect the new techniques and not to favour facility by saying, for instance: “We’ve been using this technique for years and it always worked.” We work in a field constantly changing and just because a technique had worked in the past doesn’t mean it’s a keeper. New techniques and new technologies – as well as new procedures and new restrictions – rise regularly. You have to be able to understand why this new technique is better than the first. In short, you must constantly question your processes and habits.

8. What is your dream?
I have many dreams but I’d say I’m currently realizing a big one! But, if I’m allowed to dream a little bigger, I always wanted to produce my own movies. I have a lot of ideas and visions that I’d like to transform into something more tangible, but currently, my ideas are a little too ambitious to be turned into images without investing gigantic budget and time. My biggest dream would be to get to the point where technology would be so advanced that it would allow me to design tools that would create the ideas and images that are in my mind, into 3D animations, with minimal effort and mostly, budget. Technology is already evolving rapidly and there are already many tools that help me design stimulating ideas. But there is still work to be done to reduce the allotted time between the moment where we imagine a picture or animated sequence, and the moment where it becomes a reality, right in front of your eyes.