Meet Scott, Systems Analyst
Scott “Skottie” Miller has been working in technical industries for over thirty years, namely for aerospace and entertainment companies. He currently serves as a Technology Fellow for Infrastructure and Architecture at DreamWorks Animation. This role allows him to focus on researching forward-looking strategies that can be implemented as new systems to improve the movie-making process.
In 2016, DreamWorks was bought by NBCUniversal, which is currently an ongoing merger. Miller said that is one of the reasons the animation studio did not have a blockbuster movie release in 2017.
What do you do at DreamWorks Animation?
I deal with half vendor surveys, proof of concept testing and evaluation, physical infrastructure equipment, computer systems networking, storage, graphics cards, workstations, motion capture, post-production audio equipment; basically any hardware systems or software stats that might be used anywhere in the production.
I’m constantly in a healthy workflow trying to figure out how data and people and material move from group to group to group.
The third part is operations, which involves the daily provisioning, metrics, monitoring and repairing of any of these infrastructure components. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can’t fix what you don’t understand, and you can’t understand what your future will look like if you don’t understand your current life.
It’s a fairly specialized job that combines operations, systems engineering, systems architecture, a little CIO, CTO and a few of the company strategy requirements. I’m officially in the office of the CTO, so on our CTO’s behalf, I’m doing this work for the facility.
In a business like animation, how important is it to have systems running as quickly as possible?
It’s crucial… Animation as a process is pretty fascinating because it lets you imagine any world you want. You can create the environments, characters and circumstance and put that on-screen as a story. You can create anything you can imagine, but with that power also comes responsibility.. You don’t get anything for free.
In a live-action movie, I aim my camera at an actor and the actor moves around, I say cut, and I’ve got their hair, their clothing, their interaction with clothing and the scene. f they pick up an object, I can record that. In animation you have to make a model; you have to rig that model for muscles and skin, you have to move that model through space, you have to design the environment and the furniture, model the furniture and surface the furniture.
Everything has to get built. Every single pixel in a movie -and that’s about 250 billion pixels in a movie - has to be manufactured. So, it is crazy and it’s a very labor-intensive process. There are up to 400 artists at workstations running various applications, interacting with their data set, doing computations on that data set and saving the results.
It takes three or four years to do this, with people all in front of their computers for 10 hours a day.o, if I can make somebody’s day even five minutes faster over a 50-week year for three or four years, then that person will be more successful, more able to focus on their craft and concentrate on making art rather than waiting for their computers.
Do you enjoy working in animation?
Absolutely. It’s an amazing art form. I love being able to point to a product on the screen and say “I helped make that.” It’s nice when friends and family stay to see my name in the credits at the end of a movie. It may be way down at the bottom past the guys who sold lunch and stuff like that, but you’re still getting credit for your work. I’ve got screen credits in over 50 films. it’s very gratifying work.
When I worked in aerospace on technology for the U.S. military,, I couldn’t tell anyone what I were doing; I couldn’t talk about my day or what was broken or what was interesting because it was all classified. With feature film, you can watch it on screen, you can watch a rerun or you can get a DVD, and it makes people happy. It’s not saving lives, it’s not curing cancer, but it does help people experience different emotions, whether they want to be sad, happy, or somewhere in between. It’s a little bit recession proof.
The content is always brilliant but the mechanisms to get there tend to fall short.. You always find challenging problems to solve.
What kinds of skills do you need to be a systems analyst?
There’s a technical skill set. My masters is in computer science, which back then meant applications programming. It still does, there’s just also a healthy dose of the theoreticals of computer science now. I interned during college, and then after graduation went to work for an aerospace company writing software.
While I was doing software development, the systems we used were not running very fast and tended to be unreliable, so I got interested in systems administration. A system administrator is someone who operates a computer on behalf of its users.
In the late 70s or early 80s when this was happening, one computer would provide the services for 700 people for their work. So, if that one computer failed, the rest of them stopped working.
Basic knowledge on computer systems, including how they interact and how they work, where to look when troubleshooting, combined with the domain knowledge of what your pipeline looks like, gives you the insight to troubleshoot effectively.
Communication skills are always a plus when you have to explain to somebody outside your position why the technology isn’t working. You’ll need to learn how to have these conversations in a way that is non-threatening and at their level. These aren’t dumb people, they’re just not technology-savvy.
The artists I’ve worked with are some of the most creative, talented people out are, but when they lose their car keys, they’re flabbergasted. I pride myself on being able to understand my audience and explain things to them at their level.
Are there any challenges in particular you’ve had to deal with?
The arms race between the technology resources that are available (how much storage, how many CPUs do I have to compute my movie, how many workstations do I have) and the people doing the work is constantly escalating
For example, production says they want a product to look a certain way on film, which is going to take 10,000 compute hours, but we only have 20. So, how am I going to make my software or my hardware more efficient; how do I squeeze more work out of it?
Or, production will say that they have a desire to do something on screen that looks a specific way, and it takes a combination of software, systems architecture and workflow to figure out how to make it happen.
We’ll often start a movie with the director’s intent, but we won’t know exactly how we’re going to make it a reality..Over the several year course of the film’s production, we’ll work with the artists on what look they’re trying to achieve on-screen, what effect they want to portray, how they want those characters to behave, etc and we’ll write the appropriate software and systems to do the work.
It’s a lot about resource management and resource challenges. The other big challenge is dealing with late decisions that cause you to scramble to meet deadlines.. You get to bring all of your resources and experience to the table to find the best solution, and then when you come across a similar issue in the future, you can apply what you’ve learned to that equation.
You described your work as being a typical nine-to-five with a large amount of meetings. Is that the typical day in the life of someone at your level?
Yes I'd say so, definitely at my level. In general, you're analyzing both computers and people who are experts on the other systems. For example, one of my recent meetings involved making sure we had the right configuration of systems for an upcoming purchase. The meeting I had after that was with a vendor who is trying to design a new type of storage system and wanted some feedback. I also regularly have one-on-one touch base meetings with my boss to talk about what I've been working on.
For me, I try to schedule no more than two and a half hours worth of meetings in a nine hour day. I usually treat my lunch break as a time to educate myself by surfing the web, reading blogs, and catching up on the latest industry news.
One of the things I strive to do is not bring too much of my work home with me.. One of the reasons I like working here is because there's a good sense of work-life balance. You can, especially if you're a younger single person, kill yourself 90 hours a week. All that does is show your boss that you're stupid and willing to work 90 hours a week when everybody else will do half that much.
Work smart, not long.
Are there any other pieces of advice you have?
In general, my career has been a lot of ‘who you know’ or more ‘what you know,’ so stay flexible. Don't be afraid to try something you don't know how to do because eventually you'll learn how to do it. And in learning, you'll find out whether or not you like it, and then you can move on.
Don't be afraid to switch jobs if it doesn't work. Too many people say, "well I went to school forever and I did this so I have to be that." You don't have to be stuck in a career. A lot of our software developers were physicists who realized that yeah, being a physicist at Caltech is cool, but it doesn't pay very well. So, they decided to take their knowledge of physics and write rendering software. Or maybe, someone could use their physiology degree to be a muscle and skin systems modeler instead of working in sports medicine.
Think outside of the box and don’t let your expectations limit you. Before I got my internship in aerospace, I was going to buy a gas station and be a mechanic. I had a partner, a friend of mine, and we saved up some money and were working together. I was teaching swimming lessons and doing auto mechanics, and that was a blast, so we figured we would buy a gas station.
I'm glad we didn't because now, independent service stations that do service repairs are few and far between. So, I got this internship instead because I really liked air conditioning, computers, and working on cars.
Stay flexible. When opportunity knocks at your door, be prepared to go wherever it takes you.