Apurva Shah is a digital artist par excellence, who brings a wealth of expertise in 3D visual effects and animation to his role of effects supervisor at Pixar Animation Studios. Apurva had joined Pixar in 2001 to lead a team of effects animators in creating a variety of shot sequences for the film ‘Finding Nemo.’ He was effects supervisor on Disney Pixar’s 2007 release ‘Ratatouille,’ which won him the VES award for best supporting effects, and an academy award for ‘Best Animated Film to boot.’ He was also involved early on with the technical looks development for ‘Toy Story 3.’ He is currently working on a series of short films, ‘CarsToons,’ based on the endearing characters from the feature film ‘Cars.’ Prior to Pixar, Apurva had held a slew of key positions in the animation and effects industries.
At PDI/DreamWorks, Apurva was a sequence supervisor on the academy award winning ‘Shrek,’ was effects lead on the studio’s first animated feature, ‘Antz,’ and created visual effects shots on the live action films ‘Batman Forever’, ‘The Arrival,’ and ‘Broken Arrow.’ He is as active in the world of teaching digital effects as he is at putting them into practice. A faculty member at the Art Institute and the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, he takes classes on Visual Effects and Motion Capture. He is also very active in the CG community and has served on the Siggraph sketches jury in 2005-08. He has presented at several conferences and Universities both in the US and internationally. He also has several patent applications pending for animation technology developed at Pixar. Apurva earned a MS in Computer Science from Texas A&M University, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Mumbai.
Here’s his story, in his own words:
“Actually when I was in India, my main interest was in computers and programming. This was in the late 80s when PCs were just starting to become prevalent. I spent a lot of time (although I should probably have been at school) studying with Vijay Mukhi, who was an excellent and motivating teacher. Finally, after I completed my BE from Somaiya, I came to the US to pursue a Masters in Computer Science at Texas A&M University. That’s when things took a different turn. The Architecture School at A&M had an excellent animation programme, so I signed up for a class there. In the class we were required to produce an animated short of our own. The creative excitement of doing that and the ability to combine my technical and creative skills was an awesome feeling. It was like love at first sight.
“After I completed my Masters, I knew that to really get deeper into animation I needed to round out my artistic side. I got an excellent opportunity to do just that by working and studying at the Ringling School of Art & Design in Florida. After about a year at Ringling, I was able to get a job in California, with PDI in their R&D department. PDI, which was later acquired by Dreamworks, was one of the oldest studios in Computer Animation and I got a very broad and diverse experience there in everything from commercials to film visual effects. More importantly, this was also where I met my mentor, Richard Chuang, who taught me so much of what I know about animation and visual effects.
“When PDI started working on the feature animated film ‘Antz,’ I naturally got involved with the effects on that project. From there I went on to serve as a Sequence Supervisor on ‘Shrek.’ While working on that project we had no idea that it would eventually go on to become one of the most successful animated films. After seven years at PDI, I decided to start my own studio focused on broadband/internet animation. This was in the late 90s and my timing couldn’t have been worse. So after a year I decided to join Pixar, which is also in northern California. That was an excellent move for me, since Pixar has an amazing team of filmmakers and artists, and gives employees educational opportunities to advance themselves in these areas. The studio’s goal is to make every technical director and artist working on the projects think like a filmmaker. At Pixar I have worked on visual effects for ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Ratatouille.’ Currently, I am supervising several short films based on the original characters from ‘Cars.’ This is also the first time after being at Pixar for seven years that I have had an opportunity to work with John Lasseter.
As with all of my previous projects it’s been an amazing learning experience indeed!
“Looking back on my career so far I feel very lucky that I had mentors like Vijay and Richard who took interest in me, and also got the opportunity to work on some great projects that helped me learn and grow as an artist. Through teaching, mentoring and other activities I hope I will be able to give back to the community in the same way. The bar in visual effects as well as feature animation is a moving target. At this point we are technically capable of producing almost any kind of imagery so the dominant factors now are how to creatively apply what we know as well as do it cost effectively. The latter could be a distinct advantage for the Indian animation business provided it is able to deliver high visual quality at a competitive cost basis.
“The initial visual development phase is one of the most exciting phases of a project. There are lots of conversations with the Director, Production Designer, DP and Editor about the challenges and visual goals. It’s a blue sky phase … ! We come up with lots of different ideas, almost like seeds, having no knowledge of which ones will work and which won’t but that’s what makes this phase so exciting. Later on, once you are in full production, you often wonder why we didn’t do this or why did we do that – but that’s 20-20 hindsight and hopefully you apply that experience to the next project.
“On ‘Ratatouille’ we worked on several different problems at this early stage – quadruped rig for the rats, organic modeling and edge displacement to avoid straight, CG lines, translucency and subsurface for food and skin, food effects and visual manipulation of the image to avoid grey, to name a few. I can’t imagine how we could have taken on the film without some of this initial development. However, it’s also important to balance how much you invest in upfront activities without solid story and layout to back you up. Time and budget is finite so you want to pick the most important things to focus on.
“The tools used in CG visual effects for live action are not that different than what we use in animation. There are naturally creative differences – in animation we strive for caricature while live action visual effects are focused on realism. Both have their own unique challenges and I would love to work on a visual effects project at some point, especially one that integrates practical special effects with CG visual effects.”