We talked to Max Liani, an engineer at Disney Pixar, to find out how he made it to the world famous dream factory and what his job is about when it comes to making the beautiful magic of movies we see on the silver screen. Have you ever wondered what it is like to be an engineer in the movie industry? We have too. Here’s our conversation with Max.
IndieWatch: Tell us about yourself. How was your education? What did you major in?
Max: Where do we start? Believe it or not, I don’t have a degree. I was studying biology and chemistry when I discovered about computer graphics. This was the early 90’s. CG back then was not what it is now. And there was no internet either… well, there was, but not in people’s homes. Information was not trivially accessible like today. If I wanted to check some books or papers, I had to go to the university library, that was in another city! I devoured the few (really expensive) books I could find and learn by myself.
Now schools offer courses, masters, while information and learning material is abundant and you can see that reflected in the quality of what students produce these days. The standards are very high and learning in college gives you better opportunity to find people that challenge you and to begin building your network.
IndieWatch: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Max: I grew up in Italy, I lived in Australia for a long time and now I am in the US. Conversely, to what most of my colleagues did, I did not move many times. 3 continents down, 3 more to go.
IndieWatch: Did you envision yourself working in the movie industry when you were still in college? What did you work with before that job? Did you ever consider working with something else before working in this field? How did Pixar happen in your life and when?
Max: At school, I liked physics and biology. The encounter with computer graphics was casual and fortuitous. I dreamed about working in the movies, yes. I didn’t think it was possible. I tried my best with the jobs I could find. My very first job was as a shop assistant in an electronics store. I was doing my computer graphics at home, at night, trying to become a decent artist and dreaming I could do it professionally.
Again, these were the early 90’s. I did other jobs before landing in a small studio, doing design and architectural visualization. I remember my job interview, I didn’t have a resume or nicely presented portfolio, I had a 3.5” floppy disk with a few 800×600 jpg files of my projects. Clearly, I didn’t know what I was doing, but something in what I was making must have been right.
I moved to a few places while working as a generalist 3D artist, I began studying computer science (again, on my own) to write the software I needed that was not commercially available/affordable. I started teaching CG in schools, working in TV advertising, and low budget film productions.
In 2005 I moved to Australia to work for Animal Logic. I worked there for 10 years, gradually stepping up. That was a big company, artists and technicians were more specialized there. Coming as an all-around 3d artist I had to pick a specialization to apply to the job position, I wanted to apply for character rigging, but the positions opened were for lighting TDs. That was something I could work with too. I did the interview and I had the job. The lighting department of Happy Feet was huge, 86 lighters, I have never seen anything like that, it was lots of work but also lots of fun. The fact that I could do several things – including creating tools – was something valued. When joining those large productions, it is normal to leave at the end of the project: studios grow and shrink to accommodate to busy schedules and quiet periods. I was among the few chosen to stay and become part of the staff.
I have gradually stepped up from lighting artist to lighting supervisor. In between productions I was writing software to improve the tools and pipeline. For all my career I had this dual nature of artist and engineer: with the knowledge of what I wanted as an artist, I could implement the tech I needed for next production. At some point, I decided I wanted to write a render engine. I knew what I wanted, I didn’t know how to do it. It took a few years of night work, while during the day I was supervising my lighting crew. But that experimental tool turned out to be the key to success for one of the productions, The LEGO Movie. After that my career in lighting came to a conclusion and I focused full-time on production rendering technology.
In 2015 Pixar noticed me. They were looking for a new bright mind to join the Renderman Team. I took the challenge and I moved to the US. Now I lead the Renderman Team, I collaborate with exceptionally talented researchers, engineers and artists across the globe to shape the new trends of 3d rendering for film production.
Back to my first job interview with a floppy disk in my hand, would I have thought that journey would lead me here? No way, but you start from somewhere and if you respect your dreams, with time, they may take you far.
IndieWatch: What’s the role of engineers, in general, in this field?
Max: In a romantic way, we realize the dreams of visionary directors. Even though the audience does not recognize us much. Ask your readers, who watched the Academy Awards? Then ask them, who watched the Academy SciTech awards? I was nominated at the SciTech awards this year and people will never know.
You can find three careers opportunities for engineers in this field. Academics working in universities and research centres, often advancing the state of the art with the hope that their publications will find practical applications. Those creating commercial production software. And those working for studios – like Pixar – to develop the proprietary tools that are needed by the studio. Exception made for the academic path, the distinction is somehow artificial and the job is fairly similar.
When you see an explosion on the big screen, that means somebody studied the physical and computational aspects of fluid dynamics and solved the problems to write a computer simulation that behaves realistically and efficiently. Another engineer studied the physics of light, how it propagates and scatters through heterogeneous participating media, then they wrote a software that approximates the complex light transport problem and generates an image. An artist took such tools, became an expert user that can make them do what is needed. An art director or production designer interpreted the vision of the director and filled in the details, giving instructions to the artist about how the explosion should be like. The artist interpreted that brief and choreographed a way to make the software do what they wanted.
The tools are never perfect: often the artist formulates a list of requests for the engineer for things they need to do and the software won’t allow them to do. The engineer studies the issue and comes up with a solution that is practical and works well for the artists. This interaction is the driving force of innovation. Art inspires the technology, technology enables the art.
IndieWatch: What do you do at Pixar as an engineer, exactly?
Max: I lead a team of researchers and engineers to innovate the rendering technology that we use to produce all Pixar movies, we also sell this toolset to other studios that want to use it, this is Renderman.
IndieWatch: What skills are required from you to do that job?
Max: It is a peculiar position to fill. I need to be an artist to understand artists well and anticipate their requests when I can. I need to be an engineer to talk to my team and help them architect and implement concrete, practical, and efficient solutions. I need to be a manager to look after my people. I need to be a diplomat because on complex projects and tight deadlines there is inevitable friction that needs to be eased out.
This is unusual. You can be an artist or an engineer and be successful and fulfilled.
IndieWatch: Which skills did you learn while doing the job itself and that you had never learned from the books?
Max: Interesting question. Learning on the job doesn’t necessarily mean you learn from somebody else showing you how to do it. Learning on the job also means to study, but this time there is no teacher and the exam consists in getting your task done. This is how I have learned most of what I know.
There is something special that can happen only on the job. You can learn a lot from books, but you can’t learn the social skills that allow you to be an effective part of a team. You can study math, physics and computer science, and practice the art. Experience and social skills can only mature with time, there is no shortcut there. It took me 20 years to get here.
IndieWatch: Which movies have you worked in? What was your work in them, exactly?
Max: This could be a long answer, so I’ll keep this at a high level. There are two types of portfolio for people that work in this industry: the people that worked on many projects by joining the production during the crunch time toward the end. They work on a movie for 3 months, you get 4 movies/year in your reel.
Then there are those that worked on the movie since the beginning of the project, since its conception, for 3-5 years. These don’t have a long list of titles to show off, but these people were the one that made it possible, seeing every aspect of the production from start to finish. I fit more into the second category. My most recent projects (excluding those not announced yet) in backward order:
- Cars 3
- The Lego Ninjago
- The Lego Batman
- Finding Dory
- Allegiant (the Divergent series)
- The Lego Movie
- Walking With Dinosaurs 3D
IndieWatch: How’s your daily routine at Pixar? Are you always working on a next movie project?
Max: The daily routine is not what is exciting. You can imagine how a person in my position I spend a substantial portion of my time in meetings, discussions with production supervisors, collaborators and customers. The rest of the day goes by finding solutions and writing/optimizing code. What is exciting is what is created by the team, the studio and our customers using Renderman around the world.
For the most of the time, I am not working on the next movie. I did that up to a few years ago, as a supervising artist working with the director, working on shots. Now that I am more on the technology side of things I look at a spectrum of different projects peeking across different companies, figuring out how to improve Renderman for what will come after the next Pixar movie or the next Star Wars.
IndieWatch: What do you think the college student should focus on now if they want to pursue a career like yours? What should they expect from a job like that?
Max: The Far majority of my colleagues are engineers or artists, where some artists are more technical than others without being engineers. There is obviously a lot to learn and most of it will not come from college education but from experience in the field. So don’t stress too much about what should you learn today. Rather, be passionate, honest about what you and be kind, that will guide you forward.
If you are studying fine arts, develop your creativity and refine your skills, but also learn how to do your best from someone else’s idea. Learn to manage your time and estimate how long it would take you to do something. Remember, most of the time you are working on somebody else’s vision, not necessarily yours, which is in contrast with the definition of being an artist.
If you are studying software engineering, try different things, you never know which tool, technique or theory you will need. Often the challenge is knowing that there is a mathematical or numerical tool you can leverage and the best solutions tend to come from inter-disciplinary studies and interactions. Also, don’t try to be the best, programmers can become abrasive in the pursuit of personal excellence. The greatest endeavours are made with the collaboration of many people, not by individuals.
For everyone, be humble and respectful, do the best with what you have got. Learn how to deal with stress, rejection and failure. You are likely not to get your dream job at first try. And when eventually you do, you may discover it is not what you think it was. So know your limits, work within your limits and take some risks. Don’t be purely driven by the desire to make an impact.
What to expect? Be prepared to travel. Working on films means moving from company to company, from continent to continent until you get that opportunity to stick in some place you like and where you are liked. It may be thrilling at first, but it can become exhausting to pack your life and move every year (like I see many of my colleagues did).
Take joy in what you do, don’t be driven by the desire to make an impact that is exceptionally rare and if you live for that you are likely up for disappointment. But if you really like what you do, then you rejoice every day and you live a full life.
You will change several employers and professions. If you are fair to others and to yourself, you don’t need special treatment. But if you think you deserve better because you are special, then people around you will notice the negative reflection and you will have a hard time. Know your limits and take some risks.