Hans Ripjkema, formerly of Rhythm & Hues, was honored in February with a Technical Achievement certificate at the 2018 Sci-Tech Awards. Specifically, Hans and his team were instrumental in creating modular rigging construction kits that allow for quick, efficient rigging for animation.
For Hans, this is his second win, as he also took home a Sci-Tech in 2014 for his work on Rhythm & Hues' proprietary Voodoo application framework for rigging, animation, camera tracking, and more. He has worked on many feature films since joining R&H in 1996, and the tech that he's been twice recognized for has been in use since "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" in 2005.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Hans about his background, career highlights, and the change from working at a VFX house to his position as the current Senior Software Developer working on Maya for Autodesk.
How did you get started in the business? Tell us about your education, what initially sparked your interest in animation and what prepared you for the work you do today.
I grew up in the Netherlands, and as a kid I liked to draw and paint, but I liked to program as well. Back in the early 80s, I had a little Commodore 64, and started to learn computer science. I continued studying computer science at the University of Twente, where I received my Masters Degree. Shortly after, I started an internship at the National Institute for Computer Animation (SCAN) where I taught computer graphics and animation to art students. Eventually, I decided I wanted to combine my interests and start a career in computer graphics and animation. There weren’t a lot of jobs in the field in The Netherlands, so in ’96, I packed my bags, moved to LA for a job in the rigging department at Rhythm and Hues (R&H).
Give us an overview of your experience as a two-time Sci-Tech Award Winner, and provide more details about the technology you have been/are being recognized for.
It’s been great; I get to enjoy an evening with other technologists who have made significant contributions. The first award I received was for my contributions to the general framework of the Voodoo application. I helped develop fur, crowd and rigging workflows that were used for a range of things from match moving to lighting, etc. The second award recognizes a subset of the application that enables rigging with modular construction kits. It stood out because the rigging pipeline at R&H was very procedural and topology independent. A lot of systems are good at making modular pieces for motion systems, R&H’s rigging pipeline extended that to deformation systems as well. It took a lot of work to make sure it would work from beginning to end, but I think that’s what set it apart.
What films have the tools been used on, and what do you see in the future for this tech?
The first production to use the rigging pipeline with modular components started in 2005 with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and most every movie R&H worked on thereafter used it from “The Night at the Museum” to “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Golden Compass,” “Life of Pi,” and many more. While it’s still being used at R&H in Culver City, I can’t speak to the future of the technology.
Please provide an overview of your contributions to the tool.
My main focus was on the technical underpinnings that helped make the application procedural and topology independent.
Tell us about the team you worked with to develop the tools and where they are now.
Joe Mancewicz was very important in developing the general framework of Voodoo, and the modular setup of the components for the rigging system. Matt developed many innovative directions and applications on how to use it in production. The team was bigger than just the three of us. Will Telford was instrumental in the development, as were a number of riggers and developers like Sherie Bradfute. Matt still works at R&H as a rigging supervisor, Joe is a developer at NVIDIA and Will is at Blizzard.
How have these tools helped artists over the years?
They’ve sped up the process of creating rigs. A show that may have formerly required multiple riggers can now be done with a single rigger. Rigs created with the system are also more consistent, easier to use, more reliable and more modular. And nearly any type of improvement needed for a module of an arm or a leg can automatically be retrofitted into existing rigs without too much trouble. The tools have made the whole pipeline more parallelized and non- sequential, so artists can work with rigs while working on animation and matchmoving, etc.
Did you face any challenges in creating the tech? If so, please tell us more.
The challenge for me has always been figuring out how far to go in making it clever. There are always things you can do to improve tech, but if you spend too much time doing that, you can lose yourself in it, and all of the sudden you’ve lost sight of your original intent. You also have to strike the right balance between making things easy for users but not trying to cater every possible scenario.
Aside from receiving these awards, tell us about some other career highlights.
When R&H took home Best VFX Oscars for the “Golden Compass” and “Life of Pi,” it was a highlight to see work that our technology helped create recognized. I was also proud when “Cats & Dogs” came out in 2001; we did long hair in ‘99 when long fur was not done often. I worked for a few months trying to get long hair to work while another person worked on our renderer to make it possible to render hair. Within 3-4 months, we had a prototype that we could work with, and to be able to do that with two people working part time in such a short time frame was pretty cool. Another highlight is the amount of work I personally put into “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I made an entire crowd pipeline to share crowd rigging at different levels of detail and instance geometry while reworking all the skin and muscle systems and fur grooming.
Tell us about the transition from working at a VFX house to a technology company.
It feels a bit more relaxed; you’d don’t feel that pressure and tense energy from the people around you banging their heads against the wall as they try to get shots out. It’s quite different however, in that you have to keep your finger more on the pulse of what’s important, as you don’t have that immediate feedback and validation you get from artists in the trenches.
What do you do at Autodesk and what does your job entail?
I am a Sr. Software Developer, and the only one on my team in Los Angeles. I’m usually up at 6am and start work each day either from the Venice or my home office. I work on Maya, mostly related to rigging and deformation development. Currently I’m spending a lot of time investing in the next generation of rigging and Bifrost.
Do you have any tips for working with Maya?
Try to limit deformations to only the parts that will be deformed.
How has technology evolved since you first started in the business through to today?
Technology has evolved quite a lot, and the number of shots and complexity of shots has grown; in the 90s the shot count would often be under 100, and now 1300 is the norm for a feature. I remember “Mouse Hunt” in 1997. Back then, it was challenging just to create a furry little creature for a few shots, and now we have so much technology to create dozens of close-ups of long haired furry creatures. “Cats & Dogs” was a pivotal movie in some ways. Before it, R&H was known for talk and animal movies, because it was challenging to do completely CG animals; artists used live animals and made their faces talk. “Cat & Dogs” included a lot of completely computer-generated animals, and after that, CG animals took over.
Did you overcome any challenges to get where you are today? If so, please elaborate.
Nothing comes to mind aside from working hard. I’ve always just done what I’ve needed to do.
What do you like to do when you’re not hard at work?
I like to spend time outdoors whether hiking, camping or traveling. I also enjoy spending time with my family.
What advice would you give to people interested in getting into the VFX/animation business from a creative and/or technology development standpoint?
It’s a lot of fun so enjoy it. Internships are a great way to dip your toes into the water and see if the field or a particular job is really for you. And businesses love it because they can get to know you and see if you’re a fit. Internships are also a great networking resource, and relationships you make at your internship could land you a job further down the line. Also, spend time making a good reel. I’ve seen so many reels that leave questions as to who did what, and taking credit for someone else’s work is never OK.
What is the best piece of advice that someone has ever given to you?
Think for yourself and do it in a few steps. First, think about what you would do if you had all the time in the world. Then think about what you can actually do and scale back your initial vision. Also, things change all the time, so be flexible.
Are there any particular artists/animators that inspire you?
None that come to mind, but of course, I appreciate Disney animation. John Hughes, the president of R&H back when I was working for the company was also a big inspiration to me. He set up an environment that gave talented and driven people the freedom and encouragement to go for it, an arrangement that often turned out to be mutually beneficial.
Tell us something surprising about you.
I have only worn a tie twice in my life, and not before I was 40. The ceremony this year will be the third time.
When you watch films do you tend to pick apart the animation and effects?
I used to, but now I try to just enjoy the movie. When you look at how many shots are in films today, if you start doing that, you’re not really watching the film anymore. Sometimes, when I see a nice deformation of fur, I appreciate it, but I don’t analyze them as much as I used to in the past.
Is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't done already?
To me, rigging is the most fun part of the production pipeline, and I’d like to develop a type of workflow that makes rigging more creative and fun. I also want to create a workflow that’s open to a wider audience, something that can benefit the whole community.
Do you have any personal projects, goals and/or future plans/dreams you can share?
Not that I can think of. I want to enjoy life and keep working toward the right balance of work and family.