Interview 3D Effects Animator Ilan Gabai

Today we introduce to you Ilan Gabai, he is a tremendously talented 3D Effects Animator out of NYC. This man has talents beyond anything I’d thought I would ever see, another guy well on his way up the ladder in the creative industries. It was a pleasure and privelidged to share with you all this interview, and not only is Ilan a man of animator and 3D effects but he also owns and runs his own clothing brand!

You can check out Ilan on his own website, he also has his own profiles on both IMDB and LinkedIn if any of you wish to discuss with him further or connect with him on a professional level. Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Its a great pleasure for you to take your time to be interviewed for the Design Juices readers. Can you first start by introducing yourself to them and telling us how you are involved in the wide world of design.

Thank you Design Juices! My name is Ilan Gabai, and I am a 30 year old Effects Technical Director (3d effects animator) working at Blue Sky Studios. We recently released the film Rio, and are in production of Ice Age 4. Currently I am part of the feature animation industry, but I had spent the previous 4+ years creating visual effects for TV and Film. I also recently launched an indie clothing brand called Hidaki, that features original designs by me.

My interest in art and design have been a part of my life since my childhood. My mother came from a fine arts background, and was always painting or working on artistic projects around the house. My dad was more of a technologist, and used to work for IBM. Growing up I was surrounded by art, computers, and video game consoles. For my 7th birthday my parents bought me an “Etch a Sketch Animator”, which I believe was the beginning of what led to my career in animation. After high school and a 3 year military service, I enrolled in to art school to study 3d animation at Pratt Institute in NYC. Throughout college I interned at various studios. But the 2 internships that meant the most to me have been working at MTV and for the TV show “Rescue Me”. After graduating from college, I was immediately hired to work on a new season of “Rescue Me”, and that’s how my career got jump-started in CG animation.

To someone who has very little experience in the animation industry, how would you describe the role of Effects Technical Director.

An Effects T.D. is an artist who is responsible for designing, animating or simulating effects for a show/game. Effects usually fall under the category of things that move, but are not characters. So it could be anything from smoke, fire, water, rain snow, explosions, objects shattering, crumbling. It can also be things that don’t exist in real life that need to be illustrated on screen like magical or mystical looking effects. Not to be confused with character FX, which is a totally separate area of work.

How has your role changed from your education upto where you are today? Did you cycle through various roles until you found the one you enjoyed the most? Or has it been a ladder of gaining experience?

I actually started my career in effects, as a Junior FX artist. While I was in school, like many other animation students, I initially wanted to be a character animator. But as I took other courses in my major I learned about other areas in 3d animation. The effects course was actually a graduate level class at the time, but I was really interested in seeing what it was about. The course was fairly basic, so I independently read more and more on the subject. Being a smaller area of 3d animation, it was harder to come across more advanced info.

So I began to contact other people in the industry. This was before linkedin days, so I would look up Effects TD’s on IMDB, and see if I can locate them. It’s a bit of a stalker’ish approach, but it paid off in the end. I really developed a passion for FX animation and tied my military experiences in to help create more convincing effects. I continued to gear the rest of my school projects to incorporate as much FX work as possible. That lead to my internship on the TV show “Rescue Me”, where I came on board as an FX intern and eventually was hired as an fx animator. So it’s all really been a ladder of experience. As I became a more experienced artist, I gained more creative freedom and challenging work.

What first flickered your interest in the world of 3D animation? What route through education did you take to follow this dream?

Well as mentioned before my first encounter with creating animation came at a fairly young age. That initial spark just evolved over time. I continued to experiment with different ways to create animation and short films. I was also a big fan of cartoons and animated films. Till this day I don’t understand how I got away with so much TV and video games. But when I was ready to begin college, I knew that I wanted to do something animation centric. The use of computer graphics was growing rapidly both in film and video games. And at the time I was really interested in video games, which is why I chose to study 3D animation. I took a few video game dev classes in school. But as I became more involved with computer animation, I became more drawn towards film and feature animation.

What kinds of software do you work with as an animator and are there any new technologies which you can share with us the average designer may not have come across.

The main commercial software packages I work with are Maya, Houdini and Realflow. I also work with proprietary software that is developed by our own R&D department in conjunction with the FX department. Unfortunately I can only discuss the commercial products. The commercial software packages come out with yearly updates where they usually improve or introduce new features. Sometimes those updates are taken from the big studio’s developments, or from tools released to the public by artists in the community.

Working in a studio where you are working on big projects (and films such as rio and ice age) Does this put a greater pressure on your work? or are you your own harshest critic?

I always strive to create the best work that I can. But working in feature animation definitely introduced some new challenges, that at times can be a bit stressful. Working in TV of course has it’s deal of pressure too. But because of the tight deadlines, the quality of your work can only go so far. In feature animation, you have more time to work on a shot, but you are expected to bring the shot to a much higher level of polishing. At times that can be a bit complicated, and though you have more time, it feels like you have less because of the extra polishing work that you have to put in. Another challenge that I have run in to working while working here is that the effects department does not work closely with the composting department. While back in live action the compositors will work wonders with your effects, over here we need to render our effects as a final look.

I am a pretty harsh critic of my work, but when starring at the same shot for too long it’s easy to overlook mistakes. It always helps to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at my work, and thankfully I am on a good team of FX artists that critiques and pushes my work further.

What work did you undertake on the show “Rescue Me” and how did your role develop during your time there?

While working on Rescue me I focused on creating 3d effects such as digital sets, smoke, debris, dust, and fire. Though most of the fire work was done by special FX teams (non digital) who work on set, sometimes they couldn’t get permits or maybe the fires weren’t large enough. So we would do supplementary CG fire work as well. Towards the end of the season I accepted a job offer out in LA, and moved out there after completing the season.

Living out in a LA is often a dream I think many of us could relate towards, what is day to day life for you there? Is it as great as it’s made out to be or would your prefer to live in NYC for example?

I actually reside in NYC at the moment. But LA is great. The weather is perfect, and the beaches are sweet. Also, LA has a really nice art scene going on. Most of the Film/TV industry is out there. Living in Manhattan is awesome too though. There is a lot of advertising work going on here, and it’s NYC! NYC has a street culture like no other city in the world. Both cities are very different but I feel at home in both. Due to the nature of the industry, I travel back and forth for work between the two.

What clients have been the most pleasing to work with? or do you have some horror stories of the kinds of client to avoid working with?

In my line of work I don’t work so much with the clients, but more so with the producers, directors and cg supervisors. So I will say that the shows I most enjoyed working on have been Fringe, and Lost. It’s always fun to work on high profile shows where millions of people get to see your work. But for those two shows I got to create some fun creature animation and FX. Also, my teams were awesome on both shows. I haven’t really experience horror stories, the worst that has really happened has been creating like 50 versions of a shot, and then getting the 10th version approved.

Within your line of work you can often be found repeating a shot several times to get that one perfect shot, Is it worth it in the end? Or can perfectionism really test your patient sometimes?

Well, sometimes there are good reasons to repeat work. At the end of the day, my goal is to create something spectacular and entertaining for our viewers. And that rarely happens on the first try. But there have definitely been times where my patients have been stretched, and I’m ready to just start something new already. If the deadline is not immediate, I usually will put something like that down for a bit and do something new. Then return to that with a fresh approach. We get ton’s of fan mail at the studio, and reading how our work touches the fans makes every challenge here worth it.

Can you see your career further down the line? Do you have big ambitions for where you see it growing in the future?

Right now I am focusing on learning as much as I can from my experience in feature animation. I would like to work my way up the FX chain, and eventually become a CG supervisor for a big show. I love the work that I do now, but overseeing the big picture is something I would like to achieve one day.

And how do you see your brand Hidaki Clothing, growing in the future? Do you have bigger ambitions for that work in the t-shirt biz?

I would like to see Hidaki grow in the future. I don’t see it as competition with my animation career. It continues to be a positive creative outlet for me. I need both Hidaki and animation in my life, because when I do just one; I miss the other. At the moment I am 100% hands on with Hidaki, being the only person running the brand. But I would like to expand in the future, and to do that I will need to hire help. Regardless though, I always plan to be very involved and stay hands on with my brand.

Outside of working as an Effects TD, what else ganders your interests? Do you still like to go out watching tv shows and movies? Or do you have to move yourself away in your time away from work?

I enjoy a lot of things. I definitely still watch TV and movies. I go to the theater to watch movies that my friends worked on. I also like playing video games and claiming that it’s industry research. I enjoy wandering around the city and taking pics of street life. I like looking around for new street art and graffiti. I ride my bicycle to places. I recently began skateboarding again. I draw a lot, and try to get work done on my short films. So yeah… I definitely find things to do outside of my work.

You can check out Ilan on his own website, he also has his own profiles on both IMDB and LinkedIn. We must thank Ilan for taking his time out to complete this interview today!