Dan Ablan – In The SpotLight


Dan, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, what’s there to say? I’m married and have one daughter, and live in Chicago. I’ve worked in the 3D animation industry for 17 years, and before that in broadcast and corporate television. Part of my work involves writing books on computer software and photography. I also own a portrait studio along with my wife.

What first drew you to 3D?
Honestly, it was about 1990 and I saw a Video Toaster with LightWave 3D 1.0. I quickly realized that I could create my own production environments in the computer. I love the look of 3D and the fact that I could create anything I could think of.

What were some important principles you learned on your early jobs?
Well, one of the main things I learned is that I wanted to work for myself. After college, I worked for 4 different companies doing video production work, and some 3D. It was through those jobs that I realized I wanted to have my own studio. I also learned that I had a lot to learn 🙂

You offer training in a wide variety of applications, is there one you prefer over another?
One application of the other? Not really. It all depends on the job. The software I use (LightWave, Modo, Cinema4D, Motion, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) all have their place. I do a lot of medical animations, and Modo is great for that. Sometimes I have more cut and dry type of animation work, and LightWave is great for that. I’m getting back into Maya now too, with version 2011.

Do you find it difficult absorbing, learning & keeping up with updates with so many apps?
Not really – I think in many ways, learning software is like learning a language. That first one is tough, but then there are similarities in the second. Once you get that, you can use what you’ve learned there to help you learn the next, and so on.

What type of 3D do you enjoy doing? ie: medical, product, architectural
I really enjoy medical animation. Doing a lot of it this past year as well for the American Dental Association and Johnson & Johnson. But I also like architectural. It’s actually what got me going in 3D in the first place. I enjoyed re-creating places I had visited or lived. Product shots – I’ve done tons of them over the years and it’s a great way for me to incorporate my video production and photography skills into a 3D projects, utilizing lighting techniques from real world scenarios.

United Airline Plane

What’s been the most fun project you’ve worked on?
Hmmm…. Hard to say. I worked on safety animations for United Airlines that play on board all of the aircraft. That was a fun project. I did some work for a military contractor last year, building mobile offices and showing them deployed in different environments. Jobs like that are a blast.

Where do you see the medium of 3D/VFX headed?
I think 3D will continually evolve. There’s so much of it integrated into just about everything visual today already. But, for content creators, I think we’ll see more real time solutions.

What’s been the most challenging project you’ve worked on? Why?
Ugh… over the past 17 years, there’s been a lot of fist pounding, stress and more with many jobs. But if there were one that sticks out I’d say it was last year’s job with the American Dental Association. The project called for about 80 3D animations of teeth, gums, root canals, root planing, scaling, adult teeth, child teeth, etc. There wasn’t always a clear direction for each animation, and the frustration was that it was being rendered in high definition, more than one person was commenting on what had to be done, while others were simply wanting it to be done, in order to edit them into the final videos. On top of that, we were opening our portrait studio at the same time, doing a new training course for 3DGarage.com (for Modo 401) and working on another 3D animation project.

American Dental Association project

Which do you prefer doing, writing books or training DVDs?
I like both – but for the most part I like the training DVDs. I started 3DGarage.com about 7 years ago, and have slowly been developing and building it into a larger training site. We have 17 titles now, with three new ones on the way this quarter. I’ll also be creating some photography related titles for 3DGarage.com as well as with my friends at ClassOnDemand.net. The DVDs allow me to really explain my point, and they take much less time to create. However, the books are great references that can clearly list out various specifics.

Where do you think the economy is as far as 3D/VFX work?
Years ago, it was tough. You had to be a big boy, in a big studio, with lots of people and lots of fluff. But thanks to technology, it’s all different today. Many of the large post houses in Chicago are gone, and top notch players work from home, small boutiques studios, or even from a laptop at Starbucks. I’m thrilled with this migration because it’s no longer about your address, but about what you can do. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. I’m finding that my work is different than it was 10 years ago. Back then, it was many small jobs. Now it’s just a few large jobs, and I’d like to see that continue. 3D/VFX work in many ways is like desktop publishing. Everyone can do it. But, it doesn’t mean everyone is good at it. Same goes for photography. Just practice your craft, experiment, and listen to the client, and I think we’ll all be fine. At least I hope!

Who are some of the people whose work inspires you?
Hmmm…. while I’m not a character animation guy, I think John Lasseter at Pixar was someone who was inspiring in the very beginning. What these guys were doing was simply amazing and ahead of their time. Today, inspiration comes from many of the users that contact me who are doing 3D on the side, or the animator who has just that right gift for creating 3D art, regardless of whether or not they get paid.

How does a typical day for you go?
Well, we’re up about 6:15, get the kiddie ready for school. Then some breakfast, and off to the studio. I spend a good part of the morning following up on emails or doing bills and paperwork. Sometimes we’ll have a photo session in the morning and I’ll prepare for that. Our portrait studio is also where the 3D work is done. After lunch, I generally get into Photoshop to edit images, or work on 3D as needed. Sometimes I’m at the studio late until the night, other times I go home about 6 and then later work on my laptop. It’s at night at home that I’ll write articles or work on a book (if I’m doing one at the time) or update our websites.

There are other days that I’m on the road – training. This year sow many trips around the US helping people learn Modo, LightWave, and photography. This summer I was at the University of Notre Dame teaching LightWave, then Harmon International teaching Modo, then off to Washing to DC in July. Recently I was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs teaching some Modo, then a week later at HallMark Cards, also teaching Modo.

I know be able to do what you do is a blessing but what would be a dream project for you?
A dream project? Well, I’ve animated and work on just about everything – so I’d have to say it’s the job that has a tremendous budget, and is easy to create, and there are no changes. 🙂 Another dream project is to win the lottery, then not to have to worry about the jobs! When this happens, I’d probably start a 3D or Photography program for inner city kids.

What was the best advice anyone’s given you?
The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Do you find it hard balancing all your different work with family/personal life?
Not at all. In fact, I don’t know how I could do just the same thing every day. I’m constantly jumping from 3D work, to photography, to training, to family events, to answering emails, working on new deals, and so on.

What are some of your other interests besides 3D & photography?
Love movies. I see just about everything. Ironically it’s not because of the 3D aspect of the movies today. 17 years ago – maybe. Today, when I’m done with 3D work I generally forget about it. Movies are an escape. Other interests (although I don’t do them really) are travel and cooking.

Dan Ablan City Life Photo

I love your photography work, especially your b&w city images. What do you see & feel when you look into some of your pics?
Thank you! Those black and white city images at www.ablangallery.com are mostly from my high school and college days studying photojournalism. I’d say it’s not about what I see and feel when I look at those images, but what do YOU see and feel? Many of those old black and whites are lonely images. If you look, there’s a single person in a lot of shots, disjointed from the other people in view. Needless to say, this was before I was married and into my career. If you look at more current images, there’s a lot of color, and families and kids. I don’t set out looking for anything when I’m photographing, I just shoot. I still get around the city from time to time and just walk and take pictures. In fact, this is part of a two-day one-on-one workshop I created a few years ago. One person comes in for two days. I take them through the city with their camera and help them learn photography, learn their camera and learn to “see.” The second day, we process and edit the images learning Lightroom and Photoshop. And what’s great about teaching photography (as well as 3D) is that I almost always learn something new as well.

Dan Ablan City Life Photo

What new projects or training are you currently working on, if you can say?
Have a new project coming up for J & J, and then a new book for LightWave 10, new training for LightWave 10, and new training for Modo 501.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?
Well, it’s different today since I started. Back then, there was no 3D industry. There wasn’t digital photography. Yes, I’m that old. 🙂 In 1989 when I got out of college, digital was at least another 10 years away. 3D software was simple and expensive. The advantage though is that as long as you got your head in the right place about 3D, it was really just about learning what buttons did what. As the software improved, I learned and grew with it. So today, for people starting out, I’d say don’t be overwhelmed by everything. Baby steps. Try to understand what a button does – don’t just click and hope for results. This goes for 3D, Photoshop, or any other applications. Take the time to learn why you’re doing something, not just how. From there, experiment, and learn to work with clients. Doing 3D or photography for a living is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean you can just create whatever you like. You have to create what they like. Once you find that balance, it’ll all fall into place.

It’s been great fun talking with you and getting to know you a bit better. We look forward to your future training and projects! If you would like to see more of Dan’s 3D and photography visit him at 3dgarage.com or danablan.com.
Thanks Dan!

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