Expert's words: Alex J Jefferies

Director at MDI Digital Ltd

15 Jun. 2020
Christophe Bicchierai Consultant - Rendering expert
Christophe Bicchierai

After graduating from the Arts Institute of Bournemouth, Alex J Jefferies began his career as a 3D generalist at Digital Progression for 7 years. In 2008 he moved to Norwich to become one half of the two-man CGI studio MDI Digital Ltd along with Matthew Dartford. Together they produce high quality digital artwork and visual content for the advertising, print and multimedia industries. Approaching 20 years in the industry, Alex still very much enjoys the worlds of 3D and when he’s not working on professional projects, he’s usually tinkering on his own creations.

Tell us a bit more about your work for Xfinity Mobile: The Digital Dancers. How did you choose and adapt CGI textures and effects to the style of each dancer?

The thinking for this project was that each dancer would represent a specific genre of music and this was represented in their appearance as well as the way they move. The art direction for each dancer came from the client but each had their own challenge. CGI dancing characters are pretty ubiquitous among mograph artists and on places like Instagram, so we tried to make sure each of our characters did something unexpected to set them apart. For the disco ball character, we needed them to smash into tiny pieces and reform, the light character springs into existence from thousands of individual glowing dots and the fur character splits themselves into separate sections, while twirling a furry hula hoop! One of the biggest challenges with this project was working with real dancers to design and choreograph the motion. I have a lot of previous experience of working with mocap but our in-house setup was too crude to capture the intense movements needed, so we upgraded our setup to include the Xsens MVN animate suit. It all came together really nicely.

You render photo-realistic shots for prestigious international brands like Cadbury, Philadelphia or Puma: to what extent 3ds Max + V-Ray is the best combination to do so for you, and have you tried any other software combination?

I have been using 3ds Max ever since I was at art college in 1999. Over the years I have used a lot of other applications, including Maya and Cinema 4D but familiarity and therefore speed always brings me back to 3ds Max. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of other 3D tools we use to get each job done, including ZBrush, Marvellous Designer, Motion Builder, Substance Painter...etc. but Max is the major workhorse for us. That said, I don’t know if that would still be the case if it weren’t for V-Ray. I’ve used V-Ray since the one of the earliest releases (around 2001 I think?), it arrived at a point where I had only been working professionally for a few months, I even had to secretly install it onto my PC in the studio. Once everyone saw the results we instantly switched to using it for almost every project. I know there are plenty of other fantastic renderers out there but again, familiarity, speed and professional necessity mean we can get to where we need to go with V-Ray extremely quickly. I do want to try out some of the other render engines out there but I’ll be honest, I struggle to find the time!

Brexit, Covid… There has been challenging events for UK in the past few months. How do you think the 2 will affect the British CGI and VFX industry in the coming years?

It really has been an eventful few years hasn’t it! I have absolutely no idea how Brexit is going to impact our business because even at this stage, no-one truly knows how it’s going to manifest. Both my business partner and I were crushed when we learned that a majority in the UK had voted to leave the EU, it still feels like a catastrophic mistake. I have friends and family spread out all over the globe and regularly travel all over Europe for work and leisure. The idea that our children won’t be able to have the same freedoms and opportunities as previous generations, myself included, is deeply depressing.

Obviously COVID-19 is the bigger fish to fry right now and even after a few months, we’re still adapting to working from home. I still don’t have all of the hardware I’m used to having in the studio, mainly because there isn’t room in my house! That said, we’re leaning on cloud-based solutions, remote desktops and render farms (such as RANCH) and while there is a learning curve, it’s currently working really well for us.

One thing I was dreading was a repeat of the 2008 crash, where a lot of work dried up overnight. After all, when put in perspective what we do can hardly be viewed as essential, however so far we’ve never been busier. I think the limitations of social distancing have meant a lot of companies are pivoting to CG/Animation options from photoshoots/live action.

The biggest impact right now is childcare. We have a 4 year old and 7 year old at home with us and juggling their home-schooling, meals and general welfare with work to keep food on the table is extremely difficult right now. Most of our clients are in the same boat so are very understanding but it can mean working late into the night to catch up on missed hours during the day.

Ultimately, I’m grateful to be in an industry that’s still in demand and while I do greatly miss seeing and speaking to people face to face, I think that having a job that permits us to continue to work from home without too much disruption is a real privilege right now.

From a personal (and probably naive!) perspective, I hold out hope that something as drastic and universal as COVID-19 will create an international sense of unity. It’s something we’re all dealing with right now and while no-one knows how it will ultimately shape our World I really hope the shared experience will unify rather than divide us.