Spotlight is ComingSoon’s interview series with below-the-line and/or up-and-coming talent in the world of television and film. Our aim is to shine a spotlight on the varied positions that make the entertainment you love possible rather than focusing purely on actors and directors.
ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames spoke with Hair and Grooming animator specialist Victor J. Garza about his work on DreamWorks’ animated series Dragons: The Nine Realmswhich recently had its second season premiere on Hulu and Peacock.
Jeff Ames: What led you to become a Hair and Grooming Specialist?
Victor J. Garza: I have always had an interest in the technical side of computer-generated art. It really isn’t entirely possible to get around the tech side of using computers to generate, but there are some specialties that require less technical know-how than others.
Before I went into grooming, I worked as a generalist, with a focus on CFX. So before I was doing grooming, I was doing a lot of dynamic simulating of hair and cloth. Working at a commercial studio as a CG Generalist allows you to swap hats as they say, and take on any tasks that may not be hyper-focused on a single skill such as modeling or animating. So when a project came through that required the creation of hair, I jumped at the chance to try my hand at creating hair vs simply simulating hair assets.
From this point on, I found that I enjoyed grooming hair and fur, and thanks to my experience with CFX, I am able to build grooms with a pipeline mindset, knowing how the asset will be used downstream. In the end, grooming hair, to me, is equal parts technical and artistic, and that is the sweet spot I like to be in.
What was it about Dragons: The Nine Realms that made you want to work on it?
Like many people around the world, I am a fan of the How To Train Your Dragon series of films. When we got word that DreamWorks was developing a show that was set in the world of the HTTYD series, but set in the future, my interest peaked. It’s challenging to create hair that works well on its own yet still serves the design perspective of the show. One can easily go too realistic with the hair build, which may contrast harshly with the stylized approach to the character designs and the aesthetic of the world the characters live in, so it is a welcome challenge to find the right balance.
On the tech side of things, we rarely sit still at Dreamworks Animation Television, so there were a lot of changes to our hair pipeline in the lead-up to the production start of this show. We pivoted from the hair solution we used in our previous productions for one that was more robust and flexible. The speed and volume at which an animated show moves require a hair solution that can scale and adapt to the needs of the show.
With the new hair pipeline at the ready, and Dragons: The Nine Realms starting production, the timing was perfect and we got to work.
What was the most challenging aspect of Dragons: The Nine Realms, and how did you overcome that?
The biggest challenge was matching the quality of hair from the films. Hair on a TV production is challenging, given the productions schedule and volume (episode count), so we need to make great looking hair that will work as smoothly as possible downstream, meaning, the hair will look good and behave well when the characters are animated, and the scenes are rendered. With Dragons: The Nine Realmsthis show takes place within the world created by the Dragons series of films, and one aesthetic of the franchise that they wanted to carry over from the films into the show were Braids. Braided hair, braided beards, braided braids.
Although we have made braided hairdos in past productions, we try to avoid hairstyles that may be too taxing for a TV production, but with Dragons, we couldn’t really avoid it, given that braids are very prominent in the Viking hairstyles established in the films. So we took the challenge of creating braided hairstyles head one and I feel we were successful. The saving grace was that this show takes place in the future, where we could lean on more modern hairstyles and save braided hair for hero characters.
Do you have any fun, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Dragons: The Nine Realms?
Since we were in full lockdown, working from home during this production, there weren’t any opportunities for office shenanigans. Working remotely meant a lot of virtual meetings, which are prone to technical shenanigans, even to this day, 2 years later. There was one instance that I recall as my hand-on-face moment. The story goes: With video conferencing, you can technically be in two meetings at once. Emphasis on the word ‘Technically’.
The first and last time I was in two meetings at once happened on one occasion when I was in a design meeting with the Dragons team, whilst also in another meeting. At one point in the ‘other’ meeting I was present in, the conversation came up about the new (at the time) streaming platform called HBO Max. I then unmuted myself to talk about the service and share my opinion of it.
As I was selling the team on the new service, I was getting pinged on my work chat like crazy. I ignored it and went on for a good while before I actually read one of the messages. The message was from a team member that was in the other meeting I was virtually sitting in, letting me know that I was not muted, at which point I apologized to everybody in that meeting for interrupting them with my irrelevant opinion on why they should try out HBO Max.
Thankfully, I am not the only one that has had a virtual meeting snafu and likely won’t be the last. The design team and everybody in the meeting was a good sport and thanked me for my in-depth pitch of HBO Max and that was the last time I ever attempted to multi-task meetings.
What were some of the things you learned from Dragons: The Nine Realms that you’re excited to apply to future endeavors?
The great thing about computer technology is the speed at which it advances. When I look at the grooms we were able to produce 8 years ago, I can see how far we have come in as far as how much better our hair assets look as well as the wider variety of hairstyles we are able to achieve.
With Dragons: The Nine Realmswe implemented our new hair pipeline, which we have continued to improve on since we started with Dragons: The Nine Realms. On the technical level, we are happy with the stability and quality of the new hair pipeline, which allows us to give more focus to the grooms themselves. Working on Dragons: The Nine Realms, we have a better understanding of the new pipeline’s strengths and what areas we can improve on. This is exciting because we can jump onto the next production with a little bit more confidence, and as the tech improves, so will our ability to handle new hairstyles.
Do you have any other projects coming up that you can share with us?
At the same time that we were hard at work on Dragons: The Nine Realmswe were also working on a new show from the world of Kung Fu Panda called Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight. Where Dragons had us working on cool human hairdos, Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight kicks it up a notch and had us taking on fully furred characters. Fur is a different challenge that keeps my grooming skills well-rounded.