Friday Flashback #198

Interview with Chinny Brynford-Jones: The XSI Product Manager of Softimage talks about version 4, the cg industry and his past career as a comedian — May, 12th, 2004, by Raffael Dickreuter, Bernard Lebel, Ed Harriss


What is your history with Softimage?
Over seven years of fun and an additional 40lbs of weight, I would like to think of it as additional charisma but I have a feeling I am just kidding myself. I started, weirdly enough, in 1996 in the Pitcher and Piano in Dean street London, sitting next to Adrian Hill (formerly Special Projects now Cinegroupe) at Ben White’s (formerly Softimage now Framestore) leaving do. I asked Adrian if I could come into the softimage office and learn SI3D. I thought it looked like the dog’s bollocks. He said yes and my window to weight gain had begun. An expense account, 100 flights a year around the world demoing Softimage 3D, then XSI, just sounded like a bloody good laugh. After five years of that with the odd spell in production, I met my current girlfriend. Montreal being such a crushingly superb place, I decided it was time to make the move. After years of experience in the field one thing followed another and now I am the XSI product manager. Funny how thing work out.

Can you tell us something about your past comedic career?
Mostly a disaster – the rest was just plain awful. I have tried doing a spot of stand-up in mainly friends type venues and having never been so nervous or embarrassed in my life. So I switched tack and started to write, although no matter how serious the subject matter it ends up as comedy. (Or “words” as others say) I guess always seeing the funny side of life has it good points. What has been fun tough is that Softimage has always allowed (even encouraged) me to entertain people during my demos. So the marriage of my two loves, comedy and XSI seems to be made in heaven.

You are also known as “Chinny”, what can you tell us about that name?
A friend Nick Savvy (another animator, sheesh do I know anyone else) in London and I used to write comedy stuff together -(which now sits in drawers gathering dust) He had 3D Studio release 4 installed (all legit – cough – of course) and after a year of teasing me that I should “try it” I did. I thought it looked waaaaay too complicated for my poor brain, but it really was absorbing and I was totally hooked. I conned my old man into springing for a computer, next was simply installing all the necessary software (cough, choke, splutter), which was naturally completely over my head. Although I could use 3DS4 I could not even change my login name and password. Which had been setup by Nick as login “Chinny”, password “Chin Chin”. He used to make fun of of my chin it seems. When I went to Softimage Adrian asked me for a login name, so I said, err I dunno…”Chinny”. There was a Justin King (Now EA) in the Softimage office and I used to get his calls, oddly it seems that Justin and Jason are apparently too similar. So I said why not call me Chinny and stop the confusion. The rest they say is the rest.

How challenging is your new title?
The title itself is not too challenging – but the job sure is. It takes up almost my every waking moment. In addition to all my regular duties, I really love to use the software, so doing both takes up all my time.

Now that you’ve been promoted, will you still do demos?
Fewer and fewer. I have little time to do it these days, except for the big occasions. Although preparing for them is still is an excellent way to keep my hand in using the software. Without using the software and interacting with customers one can not expect to really be a good product manager.

What do you do on your spare time?
(Embarrassed smiley) I work. Mainly making my own tools etc in XSI, but also writing marketing blurb, and future design ideas. I generally sit with my girlfriend in front of the TV with my laptop on top of my lap (how ironic). She says it’s a bit pathetic. (Another embarrassed smiley) as I am writing this interview as in the manner described above. Actually watching a DVD series called “Firefly” which is really rather good.

What impact does Special Projects have on the development of XSI?
As special projects is the ultimate in front line support, many specific production issues and requests get elevated to the top of the development cycle. This can have a direct bearing on future features and workflow being implemented inside XSI.

What is the exact nature of the relation between Softimage and Avid? Does Avid having any input in XSI’s development?
Very little. In version 4.0 there were a few items such as Mojo support, (very cool direct output which mostly does away for needing a DDR) but generally the XSI development is balanced between customer requests and our own innovations. Whilst all the time they are balanced as to what will make us money. We are a business after all. But one thing I have noticed is that since David Krall took over as head of Avid, I have seen more and more people prepared to lay down their life for him. He is a brilliant leader and a genuinely lovely guy. This has a huge impact on all of us. Never in my working career has one man so enriched a company of this size.

Now that Avid has bought NXN, will we be seeing some of that Alienbrain tech making its way into XSI?
Officially I can not comment on any future development. But if we were to look at past trends, it would fit nicely into Avid’s plans for all types of pipelines

How is Softimage structured?
Well Softimage is a business first and foremost. It just so happens that it is also a passion for the vast majority of us. Come in at the weekends or walk the halls late at night and count the people. They often have brilliant ideas which they just have to test.
As a software company we are driven by the release cycle and to a less extent major trade shows. We have all the usual suspects. Dev, support, marketing, sales, finance etc etc etc. It is a team, no… more a family. Everyone is 100% dedicated to bringing the best product to market that they can.

How different is Softimage from when you first started with them?
More experienced, more tight, more passionate.

How important are demo artist and product specialist to Softimage?
They are the well known faces of Softimage. They are the soldiers who charge into battle waving the flags, They work and play like they demo. Without them, the message would not reach the right people. But they are still as important a part as the rest of the amazing family “Softimage”

What do you see as version 4’s best new features?
Construction modes
Character Development Kit
Rigid Body Dynamics
Custom Display Host
Mental Ray v.3.3
Animator Audio tools
Vector and Raster Paint
Reference Animation
Material Library
UV Unwrapping
Programmable shaders
Etc etc etc

What are the most drastic changes within XSI from version 3.5 to 4?
Construction modes

How much have the particles/simulation tools changed in XSI 4?
Not much, the core is still there, but there are new customizable controls and goals.

How easier will it be in XSI 4 for people to create custom layouts and property pages?
Just as easy, but waaaaay more options and controls. For instance any layout can have a direct relation which can also trigger scripts. And if you want you could put an entire HTML front end onto XSI

In what areas do you think XSI is way ahead of the competition?
Real-time shaders
Hair (even with Maya’s half-hearted attempt)
Almost all types of animation
Polygon modeling

What are your thoughts when looking back to XSI 1.0 and what it has now become with version 4?
It is roughly as predicted but I certainly did not see all the innovations coming. My boss Gareth Morgan did though, he is a visionary at Soft.

What do you think of the XSI community as a whole and from what is was then to what it is now?
I love itthem. They are my extended family. I am amazed at how quickly it has matured, just seeing the rapid rise in the number of members of XSI Base is testament to what has become an explosion of XSI users (particularly after v3.0). With the huge numbers of projects being done, I am very impressed at how well they (the community) push the software. For most people 3D is now almost a religion, so imagine what it is like here at Softimage. XSI is our child. It is why there is so much passion surrounding it.

If you compare the European and the Canadian markets, what things are different, what things are similar?
Commercial production is a common tread. Although there is more money in Europe (especially London) for a range of different broadcast projects. So people who want to do high profile work often have to go to one of only a few major cities. As for the work culture, I find the differences often in the teams. In Soho they work very very hard, but play equally as hard. They socialize together more than I have seen anywhere else. Even from my own experience I used to go on regular snowboarding holidays with large gangs of animators. It often made for very boring conversations in local bars always talking about work, but that is what we did. With a huge number of post houses in one square mile I guess it more easily makes for a community. It is like food courts, all your specialist needs in one place. I would be interested if that type of community is exists elsewhere.

What’s your advice to a person that is starting in the industry?
It depends on what they want to do – So generally I would say ask around, look on the net and drop Ed a line  – better still buy How to get a Job in Computer Animation: If you want to be an animator etc, then make a showreel. Look for local companies and ask if you learn there or just go and show them your stuff, the catch is if you will probably have to do it for free. But working in a real production house really pays off in the long run. Think of it simply as slavery.

What skills are needed to join the XSI development team?
Programming is a must, but more than they have to be the best. Softimage has an incredibly talented bunch of devs. Which is why they manage to make such wonderful software

What are some skillsets that you believe studios are looking for these days?
TD’s always. From to character rigging to rendering and lighting. In film and longform projects, TD’s outnumber animators. In broadcast and commercials generally a good all-rounder will go far. And in games, modelers-texturers-animators make up the bulk compared to programmers. But simply if you can do one thing really really well then you can find a home, it just means you might have to travel

Where do you see the 3D industry 5 years from now?
From my private moon in the shape of an enormous pie.

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