Lewis Telfer on his career in facial animation and his role in creating Rachael in Blade Runner 2049

What is your job title, and what does this role entail?

I’m the Facial Capture Supervisor at DI4D. My job is comprised of two distinct roles. Firstly, I manage the day-to-day running of our team of Motion Editors working on live projects. This involves preparing data to be processed, assisting with the postprocessing of our mocap data, and liaising with clients to ensure we’re providing the best possible solution for their projects.

Secondly, I work with a few other colleagues to supervise the acquisition of the video footage that we require in order to animate a performer’s face. This is usually on set for movie projects or on a mocap stage for a game project.

What does DI4D do? Can you give us an overview of the technology and how it works?

We provide world-leading performance driven facial animation services for highly realistic digital characters. Our proprietary 4D reconstruction pipeline reproduces every detail of an actor’s facial performance with precision, producing a 3D scan for every video frame. This detailed surface information provides the foundation used to generate animations that capture the subtlety and intricacies of an actor’s performance, delivering the most lifelike digital doubles and virtual human characters.

You worked on one of the most groundbreaking and well-known digital humans in cinema, Rachael from Blade Runner 2049. Tell us about that.

Blade Runner 2049 was actually one of the first projects that I worked on when I started at DI4D, so no pressure…

In collaboration with world-renowned visual effects studio MPC, we provided a bespoke on-set 4D facial capture service – our proprietary DI4D PRO system, delivering three minutes of high-fidelity facial animation.

To match the age and appearance of actress Sean Young as Rachael in the original Blade Runner, MPC needed to create and animate a photo-realistic CG version of the actress. The studio turned to DI4D, harnessing our DI4D PRO system to track the facial movements of both Sean Young and stand-in actress, Loren Peta.

We provided MPC with DI4D PRO camera information, high-resolution images, RAW 4D data and densely tracked 4D animation of both actresses’ performances and expressions. Using Sean Young’s data to sculpt an accurate CG replica, MPC then used our 4D data of Loren as a guide to animate the CG Rachael, matching it with Loren’s live performance.

What is it like working at DI4D?

It’s great! Since we have a relatively small team working on many big projects, there are always new challenges to overcome and I contribute to many different parts of our pipeline. This means every day is different and helps keep it fresh.

What’s the best thing about working there?

The people. Everyone is really friendly and helpful and it feels like we all strive to produce the most realistic facial animation possible. It’s a great environment to be a part of. Working with cutting-edge technology is also a massive plus. Our team of software engineers are always working hard to develop new tools – getting involved with this is really fun.

What’s your educational background?

I studied 3D computer animation at Glasgow Caledonian University, graduating in 2016. I then completed a condensed VFX cleanup course with Escape Studios over that summer.

Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?

My first job in the industry was doing VFX cleanup with a company called FixFX in Glasgow on a show called Gap Year. After that, I started at DI4D as a Motion Editor where I’ve progressed on to being a Supervisor.

What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?

Initially, I wanted to be a character artist as I had spent a lot of time modeling and sculpting characters. Then towards the end of university, I was offered the opportunity to undertake the course at Escape Studios. Through this, I started thinking seriously about working in VFX with a view to working my way up to being an on-set supervisor, as I really liked the idea of being a part of the filming process. When I took the job at DI4D, I saw it as a great way to gain experience working on super high-quality productions. I’ve been here for six years now and haven’t looked back. I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in a position where I can combine my love of characters and realistic facial animation with my desire for working on set, and being a part of the capture process.

What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?

I really like working on games projects because they tend to span several months meaning there’s a bit of scope for R&D to push the quality of the animation we are producing.

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

Probably two of my lecturers at Glasgow Caledonian University, Simon Haslett and Roland Walker. Both came with loads of experience in the industry; Simon worked in VFX as a Compositor and Supervisor on a whole host of awesome movies and Roland worked as a 3D artist at Axis Studios. I always found them to be approachable, insightful, and keen to offer advice in order to push me in the right direction, even to this day, despite having long since graduated. It was Simon that contacted me about the job opportunity at DI4D when I first applied, so I definitely owe him a debt of gratitude.

What project are you most proud of?

Probably COD MWII. I must confess that one of the reasons I chose to study animation at university was because myself and a group of friends used to make Call of Duty videos back when the original Modern Warfare II game came out. I was never very good at it, so I left the gameplay up to my friends and would instead spend hours editing their clips together and adding ‘cool’ animated effects. This is what originally piqued my interest in animation, so it’s really exciting to have come full circle and to have worked on the new title.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Be willing to learn and ask questions! It’s important to be accepting of the fact that you won’t know everything from day one. Every studio does things differently and uses different processes, pipelines, tools, and software. This can be super daunting when you are fresh to the industry but if you manage to get a junior role, you won’t be expected to know all the ins and outs at the beginning. At DI4D for example, we predominantly use our own in-house software, so we provide plenty of training to all of our junior Motion Editors before we expect them to be able to approach a live project. It’s this creative, collaborative and nurturing environment which makes DI4D a great place to work at all career levels.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.