How Conductor solved animation director James Curran’s need to render out his classic gifs in 3D
You may have seen the animations of James Curran, aka SlimJim Studios, around the web; the signature minimal graphic style features quirky characters and settings. To produce those animations – which were mostly 2D – for clients and for his own popular gifathons, Curran tended to rely on After Effects on his MacBook. The results were fast and very much what you see is what you get.
More recently, Curran decided to re-create a whole series of his gifathons in 3D in Maya on his MacBook. But, he had a problem. Suddenly the rendering was a much more intensive process, and it essentially took over Curran’s computer for a significant length of time.
The solution was to send off the renders to the cloud, and for that Curran looked to Conductor. In this interview, the animation director reveals why he needed cloud rendering at all, and the process he followed to deliver these new 3D animations, which are rendered in 4K in this brand new video, below.
b&a: How would you describe the work that you do?
James Curran: I’m an animator and animation director and an occasional illustrator. Most of the work that I do is advertising-based, so I work with brands, mostly online as social media posts or adverts. Over the years I’ve developed my own style of animation, which is mainly 2D, although I have used 3D for a long time. The 3D is usually mixed-in with the 2D and made to look very flat. I developed this style that people come to me for; it’s a pretty minimal graphic style, almost motion graphics animation, but very character-based.
I’ve been able to do a lot of my own personal projects over the years, which also drives the client work coming in. Every year I’ll try and do at least one personal project. I started doing that back in 2011. Then in 2013 I started making a lot of gifs and eventually developed that into a style of gif animation that people got to know me for. I turned that into a bigger project where I started something called a gifathon, where I’ll go to a different city around the world for a month and I’ll make a new gif every day about what I did in that city. I ended up doing three of those for New York, LA and Tokyo.
b&a: You’ve now produced some of these in 3D, how did that come about?
James Curran: This year I was thinking about doing another gifathon, but it’s hard to always find the inspiration to do a new one. So I thought I would make it different by going fully 3D. And then I was concerned that 3D would take a lot longer than 2D, partly because 3D can be more technical and complicated to do in the first place, and also because the rendering can take a longer time.
This was compared to what I would usually do in After Effects, which in the viewport is pretty much what you see is what you get. You don’t have to worry about the renders coming out differently. And I usually did very flat 2D animation, which would come out very quickly, say only a minute of rendering. But doing it 3D, on my MacBook, which is what I use, could take hours.
And so to release these new 3D gifs every day doing in that old way, I thought it would be impossible. I thought that cloud rendering would be a good solution. I researched a few options, tried a few out and then eventually came across Conductor. It worked out very well.
b&a: What did you end up making in 3D?
James Curran: Well, before I went straight into doing a new brand new gifathon, I figured I’d re-make 30 of the previous gifs that I’d worked on – 10 from New York, 10 from LA and 10 from Tokyo. So, my plan was to re-make those in 3D and see from that process if I could actually re-do these types of animations in 3D quickly enough to potentially eventually do full brand new 3D project on its own. That’s where I’m at now. I’ve just finished the 30 3D re-makes in a square format. It took me three months in total, although I wasn’t doing it every day.
As I was doing it, I was learning a lot about 3D animation. Even though I learnt 3D first – I learnt Maya before After Effects – I had left 3D and gone to 2D. I had only ever used 3D in a way that was very flat-shaded and it looked 2D. I wasn’t ever using lighting or moving cameras or having to worry about rendering. So this whole process has really helped me learn a lot about that.
The next step will be re-rendering the whole sequence of 30 in full 4K. I’ll edit that into a long sequence, which I’d done for all three previous gifathons. I don’t I think I would be able to do this without cloud rendering because some of the renders would have taken literally 10 hours, just for the small square versions, and these 4K versions would have taken days.
The thing is, if I tried rendering them on my MacBook, well, that means I can’t use my MacBook while I’m rendering. So it really ties it up. Also, I travel a lot, so I can’t guarantee that I can just have my laptop running ongoing somewhere, I might have to close it and go somewhere else. But cloud rendering allows you to upload the file and let it do its own thing while you’re doing your own thing.
b&a: Before you had tried out cloud rendering, and rendering locally, what approach were you using for 3D?
James Curran: I’d been using Arnold. With the 2D animations that had some 3D animation, I was using the Maya software renderer. It didn’t require anything advanced. I started using Arnold around the same time that I started looking into the cloud rendering. But I knew straight away that it wasn’t really possible for me to do locally because the renders were taking too long. So I had to go straight into finding a cloud rendering solution.
b&a: People who look at your animations might think the work is relatively ‘simple’ looking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rendering is simple, does it?
James Curran: Not at all. There’s a lot going on. It’s often the lighting that makes these things take a long time. Even though the actual designs are very simple and minimal and kind of geometric, I want it to feel like it’s a real scene, like a real object. So there’s a lot of material work that goes into it to make things look like a real material. There’s plastic materials and fur and other materials – all that stuff adds up to making it pretty complex renders.
Though, using a cloud renderer, I still need that to be fairly quick. If I’m eventually going to do one of these per day. I don’t want it to take a day for it to render on a cloud render platform. I need that to be finished in, ideally, less than an hour for the whole thing. And it is.
b&a: What was your workflow using Conductor?
James Curran: It’s quite straightforward.You download the Conductor client. That installs the plugin. It recognizes which version of Maya you’ve got installed on your system and then it adds the plugin. That just comes up as a tab in the shelf on top of Maya. When you want to render, you click the Conductor button and it comes up with a separate window which has all the settings for which frames you want to render, which cameras you want to run it from, which render layers you want to render. You can also choose different options for how many cores you want to use for the cloud renderer, for example, and other variables, which determine how long it will take and how much it will cost.
Then you just submit it and it uploads the file. It depends how big the file is, but it’s pretty quick. And then you just log into your Conductor account on the website and you get a list of all the jobs that are currently rendering on there. And you can see kind of which frames are rendered already. You can check that from any device.
I send it to Conductor whenever I’m ready to render, using Arnold. It is fairly quick to render. I mean, for the square versions – for Instagram – which are 1080 square, a frame would only take maybe 10 minutes, on average, with Conductor. You actually set it up so you can render everything, but you can also choose ‘scout’ frames where you choose one or two frames to render first and you can check those frames to make sure that everything’s right.
It just seems easier for me. To render all 30 of the square versions for Instagram, that was less than $300 for the whole thing. The 4K versions will be more than that, of course.
b&a: In the recent work that you’ve been doing, what’s maybe the biggest and most complicated job, if there was one that you sent to Conductor in one go?
James Curran: There’s one with some rats in it where I was playing around with fur for one of the first times. That was a process to make, to get it working, but that’s not really to do with Conductor. There was another animation which had characters running between a series of lamps, outside LACMA in LA. That was the first time I’ve used render layers and there were maybe 12 different layers, which all rendered separately. Conductor just worked. I was expecting that to be a problem but it just went fairly smoothly.
b&a: Obviously the thing you’ve been using Conductor for is a personal project, but would you also use this for client work?
James Curran: Yeah, definitely. I think I’d probably include that in the budget, to have some money set aside for rendering. I’m aiming to do more 3D work for clients like this, and through Conductor I’d be more likely to be able to meet the schedules. Otherwise I’ll be like, ‘Oh, can you wait three days for a render?’ And that just won’t work.
I think more people like me, i.e., individual animators who do this kind of work, could benefit from cloud rendering. 3D work is becoming more popular in what used to be just illustration or 2D work. And then in a lot of the work that I’ve seen other people post, one of the main things they say is that they have trouble getting the renders out because they’re also using just MacBooks, and the renders are often noisy renders because the machines aren’t capable of rendering the detail they want. So I think they should definitely look into something like this and see it as a justifiable expense to get the work looking like they want.
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