Female Filmmaker Friday with Senior Fur TD Mikki Rose

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Jim Hagarty Media

Jim Hagarty Media

Hi Mikki! Thank you for joining us today! To kick things off, what is your role here at Blue Sky?

Hello! Here at Blue Sky I am a Senior Fur TD. My job is to take a bald 3D model, be it a humanoid character, animal, or even a prop or environment piece, and put hair or fur on it, shaping it to look like the character design. As part of my assignments, I receive artwork from our design team to match, and often do my own research, searching the web for image and video references on similar hairstyles, animal pelts, etc. My department is responsible not only for the grooming itself, but also setting hair and fur up for simulation. Creating this while grooming makes it possible to show our grooms in both a T-pose and a more organic state with natural forces like gravity applied, or even animated motion tests.

How does your department influence the films we see on the big screen?

Our team of fur artists have a major impact on the characters you see in our films. However, we have the type of work where if you don't notice it, it means we've done our job well! Without us, there would be no hair or fur treatment on anything, which would make for pretty unusual looking worlds and characters. Many viewers may not notice the detailed work that has been put into each and every character groom (or props or environments even), but feel the result of that work in the completeness and believability of the character. We touch everything from head hair to crazy flyaways, body hair, eyebrows and lashes, peach fuzz on skin, feathers on birds, fur on animals, fur and fuzz on garments, grass, leaves, and so on. Imagine a virtual world where none of that exists. Less interesting, huh?

When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? What did your journey to Blue Sky look like?

Ha! Believe it or not, I started college thinking I wanted to be a high school English teacher! Pretty soon I realized I didn't like public speaking so I started looking at other options (which is hilarious, since as my career progressed, I have lead teams, trained classrooms full of new hires, spoken to countless student groups and SIGGRAPH chapters, and have even presented on stage in front of thousands of people at several SIGGRAPH conferences).

I attended Middle Tennessee State University where they had a huge recording industry program- one of the best in the country. I was interested in this program and started taking classes to see what it was like. Turns out, my recording industry classes were in the same building where the digital animation concentration was also housed. I had always loved Disney animation, Star Wars, etc., but had never felt I was a skilled enough artist to draw professionally. 

But, here was a chance to create animated art with the aid of a computer! I started taking classes in that area as well, eventually reaching candidacy in both disciplines, so I had to choose one. I took the digital animation route and never looked back! I added a computer science major as well, spending six years total in undergrad, and then went on to Clemson University to further hone my skills in their Digital Production Arts program.

From there I got my big break. Rhythm & Hues was desperately in need of technical animation TDs, artists who focus on simulation of hair and cloth, and I happened to have some self-taught experience from a project I had worked on at Clemson.

Several of my friends and I were hired, so we all moved out to LA and worked on a handful of films at Rhythm & Hues, which was a great starting point for me in this industry.

Gaining new skills, I was promoted to Lead Tech Anim TD, and started getting into management as much as shot work. I really enjoyed the pixel pushing and helping other artists.

After I spent many great years at Rhythm & Hues and wrapped up Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakual, I took what was supposed to be a temporary job at Sony Pictures Imageworks to help finish their Alice in Wonderland project. I learned their pipeline pretty quickly and was asked to stay on for Arthur Christmas. The bonus of that gig was that they wanted to teach me how to groom hair and fur. I said yes (enthusiastically!) and spent several more years there grooming, simming, and leading shows in that department.

When my time at Sony Pictures ImageWorks came to an end, I received a phone call from Blue Sky Studios, wanting me to fly out for an interview! I liked the people I met at the interview, and was always up for new things to learn and adventures to take, so I moved cross country and joined the fur team at Blue Sky.

I've now been at Blue Sky for almost six years, and again, have learned a ton. Our group is currently evolving our pipeline to incorporate new grooming tools and options as well as formats studio wide, so it has been an exciting couple of years!

What makes you excited to come to work every day?

Right now I'm most excited to be combining my grooming and simulation skills together. Historically at Blue Sky, hair/fur grooming and simulation were done separately, which presented some challenges. We're moving towards a new pipeline in which the groomers are starting to apply simulation during the grooming process, which results in our directors seeing them in a much more true-to-form manner, with realistic physical properties applied. This also results in grooms that are built in a way that is conducive to sim work. This direction shift has been great for both groups and I love the results we're getting from it!

Congratulations on being this year's SIGGRAPH Conference Chair! Tell us a little bit about what this role means to you and what you’re hoping to accomplish this year at the conference.

Thank you! I'm very proud to be the SIGGRAPH 2019 Conference Chair and very grateful that Blue Sky supports my volunteer work 100%! I started volunteering with SIGGRAPH 17 years ago as a student volunteer, which is a program very near and dear to my heart. It exposed me to this supportive and enthusiastic community of computer graphics engineers and artists and showed me that I really could be part of it. The feeling of awe and wonder I experienced my first conference week has stayed with me and is why I return to SIGGRAPH each year. That feeling is exactly what I wanted to provide for 17,000 of my closest friends who will be joining us in Los Angeles for SIGGRAPH 2019!

As Chair, my vision for this year's conference centers around three points: community, sustainability, and spectacle. I truly believe that what makes SIGGRAPH conferences special are the PEOPLE that you meet there. Sure, you can read papers and watch clips of content online, but what really helps you learn and grow is to be there in person, to meet researchers and ask them questions, experience new technology and storytelling with others, and feel the buzz and excitement in the room when others share their work.

At the same time, we need to be looking forward, making sure that this community is sustainable for the future, and the way we do that is by encouraging young people to get involved at an early age, and keeping their interest throughout the middle and high school years where we see a lot of interest drop-off in STEAM areas, especially from young women and underserved communities.

This is why the team has focused so heavily on diversity and inclusion programming as well as student opportunities for SIGGRAPH 2019. Below are a few examples of how we are doing so:

  • We are proud to be hosting our ACM SIGGRAPH Diversity and Inclusion Summit for its second year.
  • Our International Resources Committee is having their annual Women in CG panel as well as many panels focusing on CG in specific areas of the world.
  • Our brand new Adaptive Technology focus showcases technology making life more accessible for those with alternate abilities.
  • We will be offering low-cost childcare to attendees this year to not only better support working parents, but also to expose children to computer graphics and interactive techniques at a young age.
  • We've revamped our Pioneer Mentoring program, opened up free access to many student groups who will be in attendance, and support our student members with S3 reel and resume review services.
  • Our Student Volunteer program gives students a behind the scenes look at the conference and the content in it.

Lastly, the spectacle part of this vision is very me. I want this conference to be FUN! We learn best when the process is enjoyable, and I think we've done an excellent job of incorporating just the right amount of play into this conference experience.

Who were some of your role models coming up in the industry? What made them special?

Walt Disney was by far the most influential role model in my younger years, though of course he was gone long before I was born. I used to study his story, the lessons he learned along the way, the tools and philosophies he developed, and so on. Because of him I found Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and in turn started studying them and what they learned from Walt, and how they continued on after his death. Their book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, is one I've read many times over and still come back to when I need a dose of inspiration.

These three men were kind of a fairytale in their own right for me, and a big part of what got me thinking, "maybe I could be part of this industry?"

I've also had several teachers and mentors throughout my education and career who have been role models that made a big impact on me. Guanping Zheng and Marc Barr were two of my teachers back in my early years at MTSU who saw something in me and spent the time to answer my millions of questions.

I've been lucky enough to volunteer alongside Marc for many more years at SIGGRAPH as well. Tim Davis from Clemson is another teacher who spent a lot of time with me in grad school, helping me hone my craft and encouraging me to keep pushing forward on my master's thesis (which I did finally get done!). Another SIGGRAPH mentor is Rebecca Strzelec, the first conference chair to put me on her team, who trusted me with a huge job (the Student Volunteer program), encouraged me to continue volunteering, and helped pave the way for me with some special opportunities. There have also been some special people I've gotten to work with professionally that helped me get to where I am today, Matt Brown, a supervisor I worked closely with at Rhythm, and Chris Yee, my lead on several shows who taught me how to groom at Sony. Without all of these people my life would be very different, I am better for having known them!

What advice do you have for young women in the industry?

Be brave and jump in with both feet. An incredible number of women that I talk to have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers, including me. This is when you feel like you don’t belong, you couldn’t possibly know what is going on, your ideas feel like they’re not even worth saying out loud in meetings, etc., even though you’re likely a very talented and worthwhile human being with tons to contribute. You have to learn to recognize those feelings and talk yourself out of them. Join groups like ACM SIGGRAPH and WIA and get active in them. Take advantage of any and all possible opportunities to learn more and do more, just make sure you're paid for it (no ghost hours!), unless it's volunteer work of course. Talk to people, learn from the good ones, and ignore the others, and do what you love!

Thank you so much Mikki for joining us today! We can't wait to see the vision for SIGGRAPH2019 unfold in just a few short days. We are also looking forward to seeing your work on SPIES IN DISGUISE, coming to theaters this Christmas!

Be sure to follow @blueskystudios for more behind the scenes updates and for our next #FemaleFilmmakerFriday.

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