Expert’s words: Alex J Jefferies

Director at MDI Digital Ltd

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

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.