Interview with Sandra Voelker

Hi! Introduce yourself for our subscribers

Hello, I’m Sandra Voelker, Founder of Zetta LLC ( and Computer Graphics professional for over 20 years.
Zetta LLC creates automated workflow solutions. We help studios streamline their production so creative resources can be creative., and not be hampered with technical details. We write tools that get the computers do the dirty work, the repetitive work, the monotonous work. We get computers to do what computers do well, so your people can do what people do well.

What’s your education background and how have you started working for the industry

I graduated from Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida with a degree in Comuputer Animation in 1995. I always had a love of art, and the enjoyed the challenge of computer software design. Ringling was one of only a handful of schools in the early 90’s that blended the fields of art and computer science. Computer animation in film was becoming an exciting field. When I graduated the movie «Jurassic Park» had just been released, and Pixar was wrapping up production on «Toy Story». Many film studios were looking for artists who had both programming and 3D design experience. With only a few schools creating students experienced in 3D, it was a good time to be in the job market. After talking to studios in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, I chose a position at Rhythm and Hues in Los Angeles. They offered a variety of project types, and a location near the beach — both appealing to a young adult fresh out of college.

Tell us about your work at Rhythm and Hues and ILM and what you have achieved there

I stayed at R&H for 5 years, starting as a technical director, then becoming a character lead, and finally a sequence supervisor. My project work included such films as «Babe», ‘Stewart Little», «Flintstones», «Mystery Men», television advertisements for Budweiser beer and the iconic Coca Cola polar bears, stereo motion film for theme park attractions, and more. In the early days, a Technical Director was responsible for the textures, lighting and compositing of a shot from start to finish. We would get raw animation, a background plate and create the final image. The technology was not nearly as refined as it is today. We wrote specialized rendering code in text editors like VI or Jot using Unix and SGI workstations. It took hours to render a frame, something that would take minutes on modern computers. Optimization was imperative. I picked up a lot of tricks, and really learned the nuances of rendering. It was a great experience at a fantastic company.

Late in 2000, I had my first stab at becoming an entrepreneur. Three colleagues and I launched a small effects company doing various commercial and television production projects for the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and other cable shows. It was busy and exciting, but then the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11th, 2001. Our clients, mostly based in New York, pulled their projects and our budgets became thin. At this same time, contacts at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) told me they were recruiting for «Star Wars: Episode 2», and needed talent immediately. So, with the future of our small company looking bleak, and an opportunity to work at the best visual effects company in the world, I accepted a position and moved to San Francisco.

At ILM, I worked as a lighting technical director for «StarWars: Episode 2» and was an R&D technical director working with the facial motion capture system developed for «Hulk». Using gigabytes of motion capture data as a rendering solution for a large team, I experienced the true power of automation and custom tool development. The work at ILM gave me critical new tools, but 9-11 had also forced the studio to cut back. They had to put a lot of talent on unpaid leave, waiting for the next film to ramp up.

You worked in the movie industry and then switched to gamedev. What was your motif?

While I was between ILM projects, Electronic Arts (EA) contacted me. The PlayStation 2 had just launched and EA needed experienced 3D artists to work on the next generation of games. This newer medium with its fresh new technical challenges was very appealing. Creating stunning visuals with limited resources intrigued me. So I jumped in. I quickly saw the difference between film and game production styes. In games, a small crew of artists are tasked with creating thousands of assets, viewable from all angles, in an ever expanding space. It’s a big job. Production and rendering time is limited. I saw too many creative resources struggling with technical limitations and slow iteration. The work was daunting, and the slow pace infuriating. It was vitally important to free creative talent from technical muck they were sinking in. I jumped in and started problem solving. By combining rendering shortcut techniques picked up at R&H with modern realtime shader development and scripted automation, I was able to give artists a more natural way visualize their work. This improved iteration time and allowed for rapid feedback. More feedback meant improved results. The game spaces became richer without added computational costs. Most of all, it created happier artists who could felt like they were creating content, not constantly wrangling. The toolsets I created started getting used on EA game productions around the world. Soon I was leading EA workshops instructing technical artists how to setup similar worklflows. Their was a real need for production tools that centered on creating better creative content.

As artists who were familiar with my tools started working at other studios. I started getting calls like… «We need your tools over here!» «I miss the way you set us up.» «Do you know how we could do what you did?» After hearing too many calls for help, I figured it was time to branch out on my own.

What software have you been working with? What programming languages do you know?

The 2D creative software products I use consist of Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects, but I also work in 3D with: Maya, Frostbite, and Unity.
Most of my tool development is in JavaScript and Python. But MEL, Perl, ActionScript, VisualBasic, and HTML are in my arsenal when needed.

Now you have your own company. Could you share some insights of the market and show us some of your distinctive products.

Zetta LLC started with Game production companies, but soon found there are many places where technical tasks impede creative production. The majority of my clients are found through referrals. Through positive word of mouth our solutions have helped product photography studios, medical visualization companies, architectural firms, web development studios, clothing designers, and others. Zetta LLC creates workflow solutions for that integrate seamlessly with your larger rendering/printing/design/database, or proprietary applications. Making your creatives more productive, your products look better and your solutions smarter.

A company had approached Adobe looking for suggestions on how if could improve its product photography pipeline. Adobe suggested an automated solution and reffered them to Zetta. After analyzing their current process, I noticed the photographers were spending too much time hand entering metadata into each of its photographs, creating file size and crop variations, masking and positioning imagery. Zetta was able to speed up their existing pipeline over 10x! how? By automatically extracting product data from an existing databases, the system could get all the information it needed to attach metadata, standardize file sizes, save with naming conventions, and place in specific server locations. A small adjustment to the photography environment allowed for auto masking, auto positioning and auto sizing. The artist would simply enter single product code for a series of images, push «Process» and walk away. The computer did all the the technical work, freeing the photographers to create higher quality images.
The results:
Happier photographers being artists and not data wrangling.
Happier managers with constant results and better quality imagery.
Happier customers with more ways to see their products and purchase with confidence.
And most of all, improved sales without increased cost means a happier profit.