Creative Lives — “Animation is about constantly expanding your skill set” CG supervisor Mark Davies on learning and leadership
Nexus’ CG supervisor Mark Davies didn’t necessarily see a career in animation coming. Originally an English Literature student, he spent most of his time playing music, reading comic books and toying with online software. Unsurprisingly, it’s the variety of the role that Mark enjoys the most. On any given day, he can turn his hand to designing on the computer, building physical sets or crafting mechanical puppets. Occasionally you can also find him wandering the Shoreditch wilderness in search of a Gruffalo. We caught up with Mark as he reflected on recent projects and the inspirational figures that have guided him throughout his career.
CG Supervisor, Nexus (2007–present)
Blue-Zoo Productions (2005–2006)
Jim Henson Creature Shop (2003–2005)
Realise Studios (2003–2004)
Animating on various children's TV shows in Toronto (2000–2002)
Computer Animation, International Academy of Design, Toronto (1997–1998)
BA English Literature, McGill University (1992–1996)
Inside Nexus, London
Tell us a little bit about your role within the company.
I work on individual projects from the very initial stages to the final delivery. I work closely with the directors at Nexus Studios to help figure out the best technical way to make their vision come to life; with a producer to come up with a schedule of how to execute that vision within a budget and with the crew to try to make all of that happen with a minimum amount of pain for everyone involved. I like to be hands on and contribute to the project at all stages. Secondly, I work within an incredible team in the studio at Nexus to keep looking forward as to where we are going as a company to make sure we are ready for what might be coming our way next.
What does an average working day look like?
The great thing about Nexus is there is no average working day. Today we're trying to get some final renders through the [render] farm for a delivery tomorrow. A month ago we were tweaking character animation for our Gruffalo Spotter augmented reality app. Back in the summer we were working on stylised 2D animation for Facebook with Nicolas Ménard and before that we were putting the finishing touches on Felix Massie's interactive film ‘Rain or Shine’. So one day is literally watching frames render an hour at a time and another is optimising geometry to have it perform at 60 frames a second. There is a lot of fragmentation to the work day and pivoting from one task to another, but that's part of the deal with life in the industry.
How did you land your current job?
I'd worked as a freelance animator at Nexus off and on from 2004 to 2007. The head of 3D at the time (Ben Cowell-Thomas) seemed to enjoy giving me tasks that took me beyond exclusively character animation – a bit of tracking, a bit of modelling, some pre-vis for a stop frame animation project. Nexus was always my favourite place to work as a freelancer so I just kept saying “Yes, I'd be glad to give that a go.” One day Ben asked me quite seriously if I wanted to go for a coffee and I thought that perhaps he was going to say that he had to let me go from my current freelance project, but instead he offered me a full-time position.
“One day is literally watching frames render an hour at a time and another is optimising geometry to have it perform at 60 frames a second.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I would say 80% of the time I'm at the computer, 15% of the time I'm in a meeting of some kind, and 5% of the time is ‘other’. For the Gruffalo project we had to put on our jackets and do some testing outside in whatever wilderness we could find around Shoreditch. I've a been VFX supervisor on a couple of jobs, and have been involved in several stop frame projects which have involved building sets and studio shoots. We did a project with Johnny Kelly for Coke which involved designing and building a giant automaton set with multiple mechanical puppets. That was a collaboration with the incredible prop builders at Anarchy Ltd. up in Watford. It is always a thrill when your 3D image becomes a real thing!
What are your working hours?
We try to start around 9.30am and finish around 6.30pm, but that's pretty flexible. We're often here later than that as I find it's good to wrap things up cleanly, but we do our best to make sure that people aren't working out of hours. It does happen from time to time though, you can't really help it!
How collaborative is your role?
Very little animation gets done without intense collaboration. You have (sometimes contrary) responsibilities to the director, producer, crew and your peers in the studio on other projects. Some projects mean having collaborating closely with an agency and client, and being a diplomat representing the studio to the outside world.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I think the variety of the work is the best part of the job, but my stress level varies from around 6/10 to around 12/10!
“University was a useful part of learning about life, but it was the things I did on the periphery that became directly relevant to my future career.”
Mark at work using a tablet
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The Gruffalo Spotter augmented reality app. I was the project lead, which meant working out all of the practical details with director Sam Southward and our production team, getting the legacy characters and rigs functioning, figuring out how to pre-vis an AR project, and making sure we took in all considerations with animation that will be framed in unexpected ways by the viewer. I worked very closely with the incredible Vegard Myklebust who brought everything together in Unity. He did an amazing job, and together with him and the rest of the team we made a project that everyone at Nexus can be proud of.
What skills are essential to your job?
Communication skills, being comfortable with figuring out new software and having enough experience to know when to plow on with something versus when to perhaps start again.
Would you say your work allows for a good life-work balance?
I would say yes. Perhaps we sometimes work more hours than is exactly ideal, but having a job that I genuinely enjoy doing makes up for that.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Probably a rock star of some sort, but I never would have guessed I’d have a career in animation.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Before animation I studied English Literature at McGill University but spent most of my time playing music, contributing to a comic book, experimenting with making websites and fooling around with some animation software a teaching assistant had shared with me. University was a useful part of learning about life, but it was the things I did on the periphery that became directly relevant to my future career. After that I studied animation at the International Academy of Design in Toronto; there was an incredible collection of teachers, access to great equipment and a general spirit of healthy competitiveness amongst the students.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was as a character animator on a TV program called ‘Monster by Mistake’ in 1998.
“Working in TV taught me how to be productive every day. Working in commercials brought that productivity to a higher artistic standard.”
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
My second animation job was at a TV show called ‘Sitting Ducks’. The two animation directors there changed my career: Peter Lepeniotis (who would go on to direct ‘The Nut Job’) and Glenn Sylvester (long time animator at LAIKA and now teaching at Capilano University near Vancouver). They had completely different personal styles but were always turning the studio into an animation master class. Whenever they spoke I did my best to pay attention. Sometimes their critiques were harsh, but they also taught me that this is necessary at times. I went on to work with them on a project at another studio called ‘3-2-1 Penguins!’ When the opportunity to move to London came up I had confidence as an animator thanks to their mentorship on those projects, as well as a sense of what good leadership is.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
There is something to learn on every project, whether it is big or small, high profile or under the radar. Working in TV taught me how to be productive every day. Working in commercials brought that productivity to a higher artistic standard.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Animation is about constantly expanding your skill set. Sometimes this is artistic (honing the lifetime discipline of principled character animation), sometimes it is technical (learning new software) and sometimes it is just about putting another experience behind you so you have the wisdom to tackle something differently when the same problem rears itself in a different context.
Mark at work
What would you like to do next?
I tend not to look too far ahead. As long as I’m on a project that is stimulating in one way or another, I’m fairly happy. If on the weekend I’m looking forward to getting back to work on Monday, then I know I’m in a good place.
Could you do this job forever?
Forever is a pretty strong word. Eventually I’ll die or something physical or mental would stop me from being able to do this!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Perhaps working at a bigger studio, moving on to become a teacher, looking for interesting sideways moves into similar but different aspects of the industry (feature film, video games, full on commitment to VR and other real time platforms), or giving it all up and hiring out surfboards in Ibiza.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a CG supervisor?
Do your best to be a good person to collaborate with and people will want to collaborate with you.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on Nexus.