Markus Kranzler has always loved the films of the animation studio Pixar. His big dream was to work on one himself one day. With postgraduate studies in Technical Directing at Animationsinstitut, the mathematician was able to fulfil his dream. Today, he helps Pixar to create wonderful blockbusters.
Read on and find out how Animationsinstitut and eventually FMX brought him to California.
Movies have always played a big role in Markus Kranzler's life. "I come from a family of cineastes," he says, "and we were regulars at the video store. While others had the sports show on, we watched the latest blockbusters." "Pixar was always my dream," he says. Even in his youth, Markus was very impressed by films from the studio, such as the legendary Toy Story movie, which is considered the first fully computer-animated feature film. "With Pixar films, I love the universality of the stories. They're never just for kids, they always give adults a lot as well." The fact that he has been involved in the film industry as a technical director for several years right there, at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville near San Francisco, is very fortunate for him.
At first, however, it seemed rather unlikely to him. While growing up in the tranquil town of Braunfels in central Hessen, he had already harboured the desire to work professionally with animated films. However, when he finished school, the only training he could find in this field was a private school in Babelsberg, which was too expensive for him. To study at the state-run and therefore free Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, he needed internships, which he could not provide.
That is why Markus decided to pursue a different course of study first. Mathematics was easy for him at school, so he enrolled at the Technical University of Central Hessen in Friedberg. In the first semester, he heard about a seminar in the field of media informatics that dealt with graphic data processing. Markus took part as a guest student. "Here I realized for the first time that this is where mathematicians and computer scientists can apply their knowledge in the film industry," Markus recalls. From then on, he became increasingly involved in this field during his studies, concentrating on programming and studying the basics of so-called image synthesis, i.e. the computer graphics generation of images through geometric descriptions. It was also at this time that he first became acquainted with the RenderMan software developed by Pixar for this purpose.
Little by little Markus became an expert in graphical data processing. He did his first internship at the Wiesbaden-based company Weltenbauer, which specializes in 3D visualizations and computer games, among other things. For his math degree, he eventually moved to Munich to join Trixter, a company that creates visual effects for feature films. In collaboration with Trixter, he wrote his thesis entitled "Evaluation of Spherical Harmonic Lighting and Ambient Occlusion as Shadowing Techniques for Image Synthesis". Spherical harmonics come from the field of complex mathematics and Markus explored in his thesis how they can be used to approximate dynamic lighting and shadow effects more realistically in computer graphics. For Trixter, he made this technique applicable within the software RenderMan.
After graduating from Friedberg in 2011, many paths were open to him. He received several job offers, and Markus' expertise was in high demand. "However, I didn't feel ready to go into industry yet. So far, I had mainly theoretical experience." He preferred to put his knowledge to practical use in various fields, to try his hand at different areas and develop his own projects.
It was clear to him that the next step would be trying a postgraduate course in Technical Directing at Animationsinstitut of Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. Markus had already noticed during his internships that "alumni from Ludwigsburg enjoy a great reputation in the industry."
The application was successful and he studied here starting from 2011. During his time at Animationsinstitut, he was involved in numerous film projects at Filmakademie. First, he worked on the short film Natalis on lighting and shading. He then also began to work with VFX and learned the software Houdini. On the project Rollin’ Safari, which created hilarious trailers for FMX and the ITFS animation festival in 2013, he helped design sand and dust effects.
He went back to Lighting for the short film Wedding Cake. After a fellow student dropped out, he was asked to take over the role as lighting lead in order to finish the project, which had fallen behind schedule, in time for graduation. Already here it becomes clear how Markus knew how to implement technically effective light and shadow compositions. His skills came to full fruition in his final project The Present, on which he collaborated with director Jacob Frey. The poignant short film, in which Markus single-handedly handled the lighting, shading and rendering, programmed the pipeline and was responsible for the protagonist's fur, is impressive both visually and in terms of content. The Present won over 50 awards at festivals all over the world.
During his time at Ludwigsburg, he also developed an open source tool that works with Dreamworks' OpenVDB and Disney's SeExpr. During the semester breaks he freelanced for Trixter as a Lighting TD. Here he worked on the film Iron Man 3, among other projects. During his studies, he was also able to complete an internship at MPC in London, where he worked on the James Bond film Skyfall and Superman: Man of Steel.
"My time at Animationsinstitut prepared me very well for my later career," Markus emphasizes. "I was able to gain two years of professional experience and at the same time develop my skills in workshops." He appreciated the personal atmosphere at the institute and the flat hierarchies in the management with regard to study design. For example, he said, he was able to help shape his own studies by suggesting guest lecturers from industry. Animationsinstitut then made an effort to win these people for workshops.
He says it was also very helpful to get to know all areas of a VFX and animation production through the close teamwork on the student projects. He was able to try his hand at it himself, both in terms of the technical and artistic aspects. "I have a lot of interests. So it was great that you're not forced into a box from the start," Markus thinks.
He also sees the network that Animationsinstitut provides as a great advantage of his studies. A good example of this is FMX, the international conference on animation, effects, games and immersive media organized by Animationsinstitut once a year. As a student, Markus says, you get to hear the latest technical developments, listen to lectures by interesting speakers, and personally meet executives from a number of industry giants. Since students take care of speakers as so-called student guides during the fair, Markus made the acquaintance of TDs from Pixar at an early stage.
At FMX, the students of Animationsinstitut can also present their projects. It was here that Pixar finally became aware of Markus' work. "After my presentation, recruiters from Pixar approached me and told me they liked how 'artistfriendly' I was programming the tools," Markus says. They then advised him to try applying to Pixar's graduate residency program. That's exactly what Markus did after graduation, and he actually succeeded. "The fact that I was quite versatile due to my studies at Animationsinstitut was, I think, one of the deciding factors."
So his dream came true. Soon after graduating, Markus went to California to take up a position as a so-called resident TD at Pixar for a year. During this time, he worked mainly on the production The Good Dinosaur. The backgrounds, especially nature, play a special role in the family adventure film. He helped develop a new workflow to efficiently volumetrically render clouds.
Six months before the resident program expired, Pixar offered the talented young TD a permanent position. However, there were difficulties for him to get a regular H-1B work visa at that time. Due to the steadily increasing demand on the small number of USA visas, a lottery now decides on the allocation, in which Markus came away empty-handed. When he had already resigned himself to a temporary future in Europe, he and the people in charge at Pixar tried again with a special application for a 01 visa. This is granted on proof of exceptional ability. Here, the more than 50 awards for The Present as well as letters of recommendation from industry leaders paid off and Markus got the work permit in the end.
Since then, he has been a permanent technical director for Pixar. On Finding Dori he once again took care of the clouds, on Coco he then worked in lighting and for Cars 3 he was involved in both character shading and lighting. Such a generalist role is actually unusual at Pixar.
At Pixar, Markus has established himself more and more. He played a leading role in the design of the studio's latest Christmas film, Soul. Together with artists from various departments, he developed important tools and workflows for the film's unique look from the very beginning. "I'm pretty proud of what a great film it turned out to be," Markus says, even if he's a little sad that the Corona crisis means Soul won't be on the big screen, but only on streaming services.
He advises students who want to follow a similar path to his to always stay interested in new developments. One should also always remain friendly and helpful. "The beauty of the industry is that it's not too big. People know each other. That's why word gets around quickly when people don't like working with you. Besides, work is often stressful enough, so it's much more pleasant to have friends around you, not just colleagues."