Interview – Mark Dyson, Spinland Studios

Ask me why I love Twitter so much. I met Mark Dyson of Spinland Studios on Twitter (I keep wondering if I met him at a local conference; oh well…) and we started talking a little bit about technology, got around to blogging (I picked on him for not writing enough lol), then started talking about what he does. I thought it would make a fascinating interview because I don’t know anyone else who does all that he does (though our friend John Garrett does do some 3D images, along with his other artwork. Mark’s specialty is 3D computer animation, and he’ll tell you more about it in the interview below:

1. Tell us something about yourself.

I enlisted in the USAF at 17, earned a commission partway through my tenure and retired as an officer after 23 years. I hold a graduate degree in Computer Science. I’m married to a beautiful Utica lady and love living in the Mohawk Valley. Our three children are all twenty somethings living on their own, but we do serve as staff to four cats who are all gifted with way too much personality.

2. What drew you into 3D animation?

As a child I spent a lot of time drawing and, by high school, was sketching posters of rock stars for friends. When the “computer age” hit I was mostly drawn to the potential for doing digital graphics; as an undergraduate student in the 1980s I managed to work in an elective class on the subject. In graduate school I added another such class and this time, in addition to math and theory, it included creating actual 3D content on a Silicone Graphics machine. I was hooked. In the ensuing years I worked my way through a variety of 3D creation tools as the state of the art progressed and, by the time I was ready to retire from the military, I had a side job creating and animating add-on aircraft for the Microsoft Flight Simulator games. I love being able to express myself creatively, and crafting compelling animations is an exciting medium for doing so.

3. How do you come up with ideas for your creations? Are they always yours or do you get guidance from your clients?

For work that I do for pure pleasure, of course the ideas are generally my own. I’m often inspired by something I’ve read or seen but sometimes I just get a fun idea and it sparks the motivation to act on it. For content I create for clients, it’s a collaborative process from start to finish. My job is to realize my client’s vision, not my own, but frequently they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for so we need to work together to nail that down.

4. To me, the images you have on your website look like video game stuff; is that a bulk of what you do?

In my early years I was focused mainly on flight simulator games, and that’s reflected in my gallery of past work. To be sure, the gaming industry is a prime employer of 3D artists but these days I’m not as interested in that area. My primary focus is on telling a story, whether it be for advertising, something instructional, or just because.

5. I’m a total novice to this type of thing; how long does it take to create some of your work, both image and video?

Everything in this sort of work is time- and labor-intensive, to be sure. A huge time-saver is being able to leverage models from your existing library, and every 3D artist I know spends time amassing and/or building a broad collection of stuff that might be useful down the road.

For fresh 3D content, depending on the complexity of the build a model might take a day, or a week or more to create. Beyond just assembling the shapes, there’s mapping (defining what parts of a texture image applies to what parts of the model), rigging (adding controls so the model can be articulated and animated), and creating the textures that cover the model according to the mapping. In a large animation studio you’ll generally have specialists for each step of the process; in my case I do it all myself.

Once you have the characters for your animation, the sequences themselves have to be set up, the scenes lit properly, and then the animation frames rendered. Again, the time varies widely depending on the complexity of the shoot. A straightforward flying logo animation might only take a day or two to light and animate, but a complicated scene with several characters lasting several seconds might take a week or more to get right.

The final time sink is actually rendering the sequences–this often can represent well over half the total project time. Most animators use “render farms” of varying sizes to spread the frames across multiple computing cores to speed things up, but that’s costly to set up and maintain. My own “farm” represents over half of my capital investment and I’m by no means done adding to it. When estimating time consider that a typical animation is around 30 frames per second, and each frame can take anywhere from a few seconds to over two hours to render depending on the lighting effects and complexity.

6. You told me you have your own servers; do you recommend that because of the type of work you do or was that something you just felt you had to have?

I prefer to have complete control over my assets, and my operation is small enough that’s not an unreasonable goal. There are services out there that provide rendering assets “in the cloud” that you can rent ad hoc, but to date I’ve not been involved in a project so large that my own little “farm” can’t handle it.

7. What kinds of recommendations do you make to potential clients looking for the type of thing you do?

Number one is to think of this as an investment that will provide a return, not as an expense. My rates are a small fraction of what the larger houses charge but, even so, I sometimes see “sticker shock” after providing a quote to a potential client. I recommend comparing prices with what you’d pay for a large newspaper ad campaign, or a radio spot or billboard ad, and then decide whether the advantages of having an animated ad that you own and can use over and over provide value added.

8. What kinds of recommendations would you make to people who might look to do what you do, since many of them are probably younger than you?

Get good instruction, take advantage of student prices on software and hardware, and practice. Then practice some more. Just like sketching, painting, and sculpting, this is an art form and you need more than aptitude to master it to any degree. Put in the time, and find out for yourself whether you truly love doing this work enough to treat the long hours it’ll demand of you as a pleasure rather than as a burden.

9. What kind of software/hardware do you use to create what you do?

My primary machine is a 17″ MacBook Pro connected to a 27″ Apple Cinema Display. There are more powerful Macs available but I like the flexibility of being able to pack up and take my work with me. I use a couple of different mouse controllers plus a Wacom digitizing tablet. My “render farm” is comprised of Mac Mini Servers with four CPU cores each.

My primary modeling/animation application is Lightwave, but I’m also in the process of learning to use Maya and have done a few pieces recently with that. For texturing work I use Photoshop Extended, and for post-processing work and final video composing I use After Effects and Premiere Pro.

10. Okay, your time to shine; give your best marketing pitch!

Why settle for a 2D solution in a 3D world? A common phrase in marketing is, “Don’t tell them–show them!” With digital animation together we can create literally anything you can imagine, and bring it to life so you can show your customers. With me you can deal locally, keep your marketing dollars in our community, and spend a small fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere.

16 thoughts on “Interview – Mark Dyson, Spinland Studios”

  1. Wow such a great person! I’m into the 3D animation, too, but I’ve used 3dsMax for modeling and Maxwell Render for the renderings. I had used maya for a while but I haven’t found simple enough so I decided to go back to 3dsMax. Although I am a Mac user, too, I need to get Windows on my mac, because 3dsMax is only available for windows.

    1. Hi, Catwoman! Thanks for the compliment! In my early years doing flight simulation aircraft I would model them in my preferred application but then import them into 3DS Max to animate (my favorite didn’t support animation at the time). I have fond memories of those days! 🙂 I do understand about the conflict with Mac users; I have a copy of 3DS Max gathering dust these days because I made the switch.

      Maya is certainly a learning curve! I’m getting professional instruction in its wily ways and it’s still very challenging to pick up. I’m mainly pursuing it because of the value of having that skill in your repertoire when talking with some folks in the industry.

  2. Great stuff, Mark!

    I always like seeing the process and tools of other artists.

    The videos on your site are really top notch, especially because I don’t look at them an necessarily think “this was created in [StudioMax/Lightwave/Maya]”.

    They don’t really scream “3D”, which helps to focus on the subject matter more than the tool used to create it.

    I use Blender and Daz Studio myself, and those are pretty much enough for me, but I’d definitely like to start assembling my own render farm -sometimes those render times are killer.

    Oh yeah, thanks Mitch for the shout-out!

    1. Hi, John! I really appreciate your kind remarks about my work! One mantra my mentors and role models have always drummed into me was it’s about the story and not the tools. It’s gratifying more than I can express to think I’m managing to apply that wisdom in some small way.

      Blender and Daz Studio are great tools IMNSDHO, and you can’t beat the cost of entry. I actually get a lot of use from my Poser Pro software, mainly to gain access to their library of awesome pre-built models when I need something fast. I still animate and render in Lightwave or Maya, but the Daz 3D stuff is especially useful and very cost-effective to obtain, modify and import via the Poser interface.

      Good stuff!

  3. Great interview Mitch.
    @Mark, you are really doing a great job, thanks for sharing your experiences with us here

  4. Another excellent interview, Mitch! Again it was quite interesting for me, as probably you remember that I have mention – I’ve started my career as 3D designer and animator. I was using 3DS Max, the first version I’ve used was v2, around 1998. Well a lot of things have change since then, now it is much easier to do 3D, but at that time, the most powerful machine used to have CPU which is comparable in power with my old mobile phone, wow. I remember that rendering image in resolution 640×480 with Raytracing used to take a couple of hours.

      1. I have to thank to 3D animation a lot. When gain experience everything else and any other software looks so easy to work. If you can model and animate in any 3D software, most likely you will be able to do graphic design, video editing, coding and understand how thing works.

      2. Well, Carl, you’ll get no argument from me. In my case acquiring those other skills is a necessity, because there’s no one else to handle those jobs for me! 😉

  5. Thanks again, guys! Mitch did a great job of coming up with penetrating questions that really made me think! 🙂

  6. as far as I noticed so Mitch always asks very interesting and penetrating questions to people who he is interviewing….))

  7. Hi, Mitch and hi, Mark!
    Interesting interview. I see Mark is not interested currently in the area of video games, but I have people around me who make good money out of the gaming industry, and, plus, have fun in addition to it, so I hope he will choose to go that direction in the future. It will be easy for him, and prosperous, as well.

    1. Hi, Eleonora! It’s a bit like Mitch says: I just don’t “feel” video games. I was passionate about flight simulators for many years, and that helped propel me into 3D work in the first place, but video gaming other than that doesn’t interest me very much. The only video game I own is Tiger Woods Golf for the Wii.

      Another stumbling block is there isn’t any real work in that industry being done up where I live. I’m in a small town in upstate New York, hundreds of miles from the nearest hotbed of that kind of activity, and I have no interest in moving. I’d have to work with a game company that would let me work from my home. 😉

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