After over 8 years as a Pipeline Technical Director at Weta FX, Framestore and Studio Soi here is what I've learned:
The Pipeline TD connects each department for a frictionless and successful production.
1. What is a Pipeline Technical Director?
A Pipeline Technical Director is the bridge between the workflows of each department and the production as a whole. They are software developer who take care of the frictionless communication while supporting each stage with clear guidelines, tools and support. If you only have to worry about your own work a pipeline TD is at play. They find solutions on how you receive data from previous departments, unify your working environment and simplify exporting to the next department to a single button click.
2. What is a pipeline in a films and games production?
A Pipeline is defined as a long-distance transportation of liquid or gas through a system of pipes - a pipeline - typically to a market area for consumption. A film and games pipeline has a similar purpose where it regulates the process from the idea to the final product stage. It makes sure that the steps and departments are clearly connected and work towards the consumer product.
Usually a new project starts with an idea which is then written down or illustrated. Afterwards assets, shots and levels are build until the final film is rendered or the game is compiled into a simple executable. A pipeline regulates which information are shared between the departments and how.
A 3D modeler creates a car asset. After a review process to validate the quality and the alignment with the concept art the next step is to export the asset for the shading and rigging departments. The publishing tool helps him with this task and exports the asset automatically as an .obj file to a specific directory while creating a database entry to indicate that the modeling process is done. The shading and rigging departments are now notified about the readiness of the asset. Each of them uses the importer tool and imports the asset into their workflow, saves a new scene and starts to work in a custom environment using specified software versions, plugins and helpful tools to manage future integrations.
3. What is the difference between the department TD
and a pipeline TD?
As described in the article about the Role of a Technical Director the departments are divided into assets and shots production while each of them can have its own dedicated technical director. The job of the department technical director is to support the department with specialists applications, workflows and technical aid that has a direct influence on the artists work. They're also often a part of the artistic tasks and help create elements that end up in the film or game.
For example the job of a Lighting TD is to look into render layers, AOVs, render settings, lighting templates while fixing weird Maya crashes, fireflies, long render times, broken light scenes etc. They can also be asked to work on complicated scenes that need a deeper understanding of the rendering process for a more optimized result. One of my favorite example is the Knowhere planet in Guardians of the Galaxy which wouldn't be possible without Lighting TDs writing applications to scatter the thousands of individual lights in the scene to mimic a city:
On the other side we have the Pipeline Technical Director. Their work is mostly about data handling and how departments communicate with each other. The most common tools are:
The Pipeline TD helps to bring data into a department (importer), hands it over to an artist and the department TD while making sure their work follows specific guidelines (settings, plugins, save, load) and takes over when the department finishes to deliver it to the next one (export). To manage the complexity of thousands of assets and shots they often work with custom databases or systems like Shotgun or fTrack to control and create transparency over the data flow.
How to become a Pipeline Technical Director?
Being a Pipeline Technical Director is first and foremost an experienced programming job. Learning an advanced level of Python is essential since the work demands a more systematic and resourceful approach to handle the complexity of the production. One way would be to study computer science to get the necessary programming background. Another way is to enroll in the Python Advanced for Technical Director masterclass which covers all the topics you need to work as a Pipeline Technical Director.
Watch the introduction video of the Python Advanced masterclass:
Next is a clear understanding of each departments interconnecting work especially regarding the data that they need and produce. Additionally an obsession with workflows, organization and details that may look weird to others until Jimmy from animation decides to name his new folder "shot1_animation_jim_temp" instead of "s010_ANIM" and breaks all the applications helping him with his work. Finally they need to be exceptional in communication since they often deal with producers, supervisors, leads, artists, IT and everything in between. More often than not they have to tell people to follow specific guidelines and stop doing random things. Period.
A possible route to the pipeline TD role is to become an ATD (assistant technical director) who works on the pipeline on a lower and more hands on level.
Advanced Python, MEL and C++
Linux, Shell, git
Maya, Nuke, Houdini, (Blender, Katana and Unreal Engine)
Shotgun, fTrack and databases like MySQL and MonoDB
Understanding production pipeline, planning, structure, naming, ...
Good documentation and communication skills
Job application examples for a Pipeline TD role:
A Pipeline Technical Director is an application programmer working on films and games. The job is mostly about
writing and fixing apps
communication and meetings
It's the perfect job for programmers who love to work with 2D and 3D software packages, are detail obsessed and want to make sure that everything is running and connected. If you love to support the team from the base- and sideline this is the perfect job for you! It's 80% coding and 20% meetings. From all TD roles it's the least artistic work and the most common question I ask when someone comes with an issue to me is:
"Which project are we talking about?"
since you mostly work on ALL of them at the same time. Which means there is barely any creativity outside of coding while your interaction with assets and shots is reduced to elements checking and bad imports fixing. Most of the time your test scenes will be empty viewports with an occasional sphere or cube floating around.
The fascination of being a Pipeline Technical Director comes from being the watchmaker of the project. All the complicated workflows, different departments and thousands of applications work in peaceful harmony together to produce the final film or game. Perfection is the goal but we're satisfied with a simple "It works!" while trying to be at multiple places at the same time.
I hopes this introduction helps you to understand the role of the Pipeline Technical Director. To learn more check out our Free 7-Day TD Bootcamp: Technical Director.
Thanks for reading,