The man behind the monsters
Jared Embley has helped bring dragons to life — and his career in visual FX started here at Portsmouth
Jared Embley is a professional visual effects artist. He’s worked on huge productions, including Kong: Skull Island, X-Men – and a certain globe-straddling television show, in which his dragons played a starring role.
But before breaking into TV and film, Jared was first a student and then a lecturer here at the University – combining his career in the industry with a position in our School of Creative Technologies, where he taught on our BSc (Hons) Computer Animation and Visual Effects degree.
Jared’s work on some of the biggest TV shows and movies of the last 15 years directly informed how he taught – so his students could emerge from their degree with the skills needed to follow in Jared’s footsteps.
‘Any animator will tell you that animation is acting,’ says Jared. ‘It’s about putting yourself into this creature and exploring the different emotions you would be feeling in that situation. Our job as riggers is to make sure they have the controls to be able to express emotions correctly.
‘Designing a character rig is a very intricate process; you have to really understand the character, how it moves, how the animators want it to move. So we explore the character, we execute lots of different tests, see how this thing will move and then we pitch it to the client.
'Usually that process is driven by the animator but very closely with the rigger. They’re working together, because the animator will be requiring a certain control to move the character in a certain way, and the rigger would be in charge of actually designing the character to be able to move in that certain way.’
The idea of working on exciting, creature-heavy movies really inspires me. I love that I’ve got this ability to mix art with mathematics. It interests me and it’s my passion.
As a “creature rigger”, Jared’s task begins when he receives a model of a creature. His role is to make it ready for animation. He does this by using specialist software to build a digital “rig” which enables the creature to be articulated – and therefore animated. It’s about making sure creatures move in ways that ring true. It’s a little like being a ‘digital puppeteer’.
In other jobs, Jared has created rigs for animating digital humans, where the challenge is to find ways to avoid what he film industry calls “uncanny valley” – where a small detail being out of place can take the audience out of the moment.
When it comes to animating a dragon, there’s more artistic licence. But detail and consistency are no less important. Without it, viewers won’t buy in to what they’re seeking.
'It’s great to work with a character that’s not a real creature, but it’s mythical, so it’s inspired by real life,’ says Jared. ‘You’ll be looking at the way bats fly and the way pelicans land, and you’ll be using these creatures as inspiration for how you can move this character. Exploring it and making it work in different ways is incredibly rewarding.’
And Jared’s involvement in bringing fantastic beasts to life doesn’t stop there. Once the animation department has finished with the creature’s performance, Jared works in creature effects. This involves applying dynamic, secondary pieces of animation that bring a character to life – everything from the muscle system beneath the skin, to animated fur.
Watch Jared Embley's showreel
How Jared’s expertise shaped his teaching – and benefited his students
Jared’s role is highly varied, and his experience has taught him that ‘the more versatile you are within this industry, the more employable you will be.’ He studied animation at the University and was adamant that he wanted to be a character animator, but a willingness to learn new skills and try new things helped him to succeed.
Jared returned to the University not just because of his special affiliation with it, but because the University actively encouraged him to continue his career alongside his teaching.
He had the freedom to design the units he taught, so they were based directly around his professional experiences. It meant he could ensure his students were constantly developing industry-specific, relevant skills, and working on the same software that’s being used in the field.
And Jared says he saw positive proof that the University’s approach was successful.
‘We had a unit on the Computer Animation and Visual Effects course called Look Development and Lighting,' he says. 'And when I joined the University, I decided to rewrite that unit using the latest lighting software, called Katana.
‘As a result of us teaching that, students were then employed by companies in London that required Katana users, who were limited coming out of university.’
He also taught a unit called Sculpting and Rigging for Film, in which students learned to build dinosaurs from scratch. They worked closely with paleo artists to ensure the rigs are as anatomically accurate as possible, based on the latest research.
And by bringing the creatures to life, students discovered how to understand anatomy, then translated this understanding into how a character should move – and how they need to articulate it to make that happen.
Jared says: ‘At Portsmouth, you’ll get the best possible education from industry-trained professionals. [They're] going to teach you techniques [and] teach you how to train your eye to become a visual effects artist. You’ll learn software and tools to express yourself through your art.
‘[It can] open doors in the right direction for you...and that’s exactly what the University did for me. They showed me the road to travel, and it was up to me to put in the hard work and be able to attain my goals.’