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What is the role of a pipeline TD in post-production? A pipeline technical director is a fantastic role for those who enjoy the creativity of art alongside the technical challenge of computer science. Below, Clement Poulain from Jellyfish Pictures explains what a pipeline TD does and whether or not it’s the right role for you.

Visual effects projects are technical, complex, and challenging affairs, whether you’re just removing a few wires or creating full-CG exploding dinosaurs. Creating such work requires a complex package of software solutions, both out-of-the-box applications and more customized, bespoke code that can be standalone or an extension of already-existing apps.

Pipeline TDs are the orchestrators of this technology; they make sure that all studio members have the tools they need to create the shots on their to-do list, and if not, they code them. Pipelined TDs must also be prepared to solve technical problems as they arise to ensure all assets flow down the pipe as smoothly as possible and no artist is kept from performing their work.

Imagine a pipeline TD like a highly knowledgeable engineer. The production pipeline is the machine they tend to; their job is to keep the machine well-oiled and ensure all its mechanisms work together seamlessly, so whatever project goes in comes out looking great on the other end.

Below, we’ll dive into the various aspects of what it takes to become a pipeline TD with Lead Pipeline TD at Jellyfish Pictures, Clement Poulain. We’ll cover:

What does a pipeline TD do?

Artists rely on pipeline TDs to ensure they have the tools and software needed to concentrate on their job’s artistic side rather than the technical. As such, pipeline TDs work closely with staff from all departments to understand what their technical needs are today and what they might be in the future. They also work closely with the research and development teams designing and testing new software to ensure such technology fits neatly into the production pipeline.

When new tools or features are needed, a pipeline TD will write or modify code to create the required functionality; this requires advanced coding ability in C++ and Python and in-depth knowledge of visual effects software.

Pipeline TDs need to understand every role in the post-production pipeline and grasp the difficulties faced by each. With this knowledge, they can help solve problems on the fly or provide specific technical support to individuals. Finding solutions to intricately complex production problems, sometimes with deadlines looming, is a big part of the role.

Clement Poulain, Lead Pipeline TD at Jellyfish Pictures

What to expect as a pipeline TD

A regular day for Clement will usually see him spend half a day coding or developing new pipeline features. “I’m either writing a new tool to help improve production, adding a feature to an existing solution, or simply fixing one that requires an update.”

Clement says that although he develops tools for the studio pipeline, he’s not the one who uses them. “Communication with artists and production team members is therefore crucial. I need to speak to the people using the tools we create to understand if they help—and if not, how we can improve them.”

Clement stays in touch with the studio team through regular meetings. “Meetings are one of the essential parts of my day. I have many one-to-one chats with artists to understand and fix their problems or to answer their technical questions. I also attend group meetings with department heads to understand new needs and decide on development priorities in relation to other departments.

“My remaining time is spent making sure I stay on top of new software features. I make sure my knowledge of all software, tool, and libraries is up-to-date, so we’re not missing out on any cool tricks or recommended workflow approaches.”

The essential skills that make a good pipeline TD, from Clement Poulain

Flexible
“Every day will come with different challenges. As the pipeline TD, it’s your job to identify problems and resolve them as they occur—or ideally, even before they do!”

A quick learner
“The VFX industry employs a lot of software and it’s always changing. You need a deep technical understanding of these tools, and you must keep that knowledge up-to-date.”

Helpful
“Being a pipeline TD is, in many ways, about helping people. You have to want to help your fellow artists and empower them to do the best work they can do.”

Efficient
“You need to work out the fastest ways to achieve your aims, whether in coding or in problem-solving. The more efficient you are, the more efficient the studio’s pipeline is.”

A good communicator and listener
“Ideas and solutions are often discussed as a team. You must listen carefully to understand people’s problems and communicate what you’re going to do to fix them.”

A solver of tricky problems
“It helps if you’re not just good at solving complicated, complex problems, but that you like doing it. A lot of time as a pipeline TD involves disentangling some very tricky knots!”

How to become a pipeline TD

A pipeline TD role will usually require coding skills, extensive knowledge of visual effects software, and enough experience to understand how each part of the production pipeline works. Various routes can get you to this point!

Studying computer science or computer graphics will help you to develop programming skills as a foundation. From there, it’s a good idea to specialize in a creative discipline and work as a studio artist; this will provide the necessary industry experience and an opportunity to develop your portfolio.

As an alternative to studying, you could look for an apprenticeship as an assistant technical director at a visual effects facility. Failing that, an apprenticeship in a related field like software development will give you some of the skills you need to transition into an assistant technical director job at a later stage. However, a post-production pipeline TD role will always require a deep understanding of the main visual effect applications packages like Maya, Houdini, Nuke, and Unreal Engine. In addition, learning how to work with production tracking software such as ftrack Studio is also essential, as these are the tools that often bring together the various applications, roles, and departments in a post-production pipeline.

Clement’s story

“I started my career with aspirations of working as a software developer,” says Clement. “I invested a lot of spare time in learning different programming languages. However, an internship made me realize this wasn’t the right path for me. So, instead of developing, I started to explore 3D modeling and rendering as I was into movies and games. I studied sciences at school and attended ESMA, a 3D animation university in France, to become a 3D generalist. When we started the rigging lessons, I saw I could be both an artist and a developer. When working on our graduation movie, I built an autorig and other scripts to help my colleagues, and this is when I learned what pipeline TDs do. My career took the pipeline TD path from there.

“I would recommend first-hand artistic experience as the best way to learn how the industry works. You can gain this on by working on a personal or school project. Aim for the full scope: from storyboarding to editing. The final result doesn’t have to be long—10 seconds max is fine. The primary purpose is to learn the stages of the creative process and their interdependencies.

What Clement looks for in CVs

“When looking at CVs, I always look first at how much understanding the applicant has of the creative industry. Learning how our industry works is way more difficult than writing Python properly, hence more valuable. Personality is the second most important criterion for me, followed by Python experience—you need to have some Python know-how, just to be sure that developing is what you enjoy doing!

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