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Interview for the magazine InCG, Taiwan, Issue 28, 201609


Interview for the magazine InCG, Taiwan, Issue 28, 201609

- First of all can you introduce yourself to our audience, who you are, how you join this part of industry? Can you talk about your past experience as VFX artist?

My career started on a late Christmas night in the middle of the 1980s. I remember waking up to the soundtrack of Ghostbusters playing off from a new Commodore 64 console. My older brother, Claudio, left the console in my room, as a gift. And I was hooked.

Since that moment I spent any free time available to play with computer technology and in particular computer graphic. Eventually this evolved into a passion that pushed me to learn the basic techniques and the art of all related to computer graphic. In a time when computer graphic at consumer level was still in its infancy.

My place would be filled with any computer graphic magazine I could put my hands on. As well as the first few books. A collection that at some point grew to around 300 books. From the making-of movie books. To reference books. To animation books. And so on. My first girlfriends were not too thrilled about sharing the space in that room.

This passion, as well as the initial few side jobs creating small animated videos and logos for local companies, eventually gave me enough confidence in my abilities and led me into my first professional job. As a computer graphic technician, driving lead and credit titles for one of the first few private national TV stations in Italy. Not necessarily a striking but a well paid job.

The fact that I could make money through what I loved the most was an eye opener in my young life. It gave me fuel to invest even more of my time in the art and it did set the fundamentals for a very long career than has spanned over 20 years, across TV productions, commercials, video games and more recently feature movies.


- Can you introduce us about your current company?

After leaving Italy I started working for some of the most recognized Studios around the world, and eventually for facilities such as Disney Features, Sony Imageworks, Moving Picture Company. During that period I had the fortune to serve along world level talents and supervisors, who helped me refine both my technical and artistic skills. This while also investing my time into learning about management and training cycles.

I started sharing some of this personal knowledge and production experience throughout the world with ReelMatters Ltd.

But eventually those extra skills allowed me to reach my dream in 2008, when I joined the team at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, to help on James Cameron’s Avatar.

Weta has since been my family and the source of my pride. The level of expertise, passion and vision among the crew at Weta is inspirational and clearly visible in any project we work on. We all tend to thrive on perfection here and continuously pushing quality well beyond standards. One of the reasons why Weta is still at the forefront of the VFX industry nowadays.


- What sort of movie had you participated before? Out of all movies what was the most challenging that you had encountered?

Due to my early, self thought, home training, it became easier for me to be involved with CG animation productions first. On that front, my best memories are working on Sony Imageworks’ “Surf’s Up” as well as on Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s “The Adventure Of Tintin”. Movies which both raised the bar for CG environments and character animation.

Most recently I have seen myself more involved with live action features, such as: “Avatar”, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” and “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes”, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “The Hobbit: The Battle Of Armies”, “Iron Man Three”. All the way to Jon Favreau’s Walt Disney production: “The Jungle Book”.

Each production has its own level of complexity and it is hard to make comparisons. Having some basic training has been fundamental for me to be able to see these features to delivery, while being flexible enough in sorting out those unique daily trials.

Feature production overall is an unique challenge itself. You do need a solid understanding of both technology and human nature to be able to find solutions which are applicable to a constantly moving target, across the life of a project. Often under a commercially driven, delivery pressure. And while working along a multitude of different unique talents.

It is quite a life changing experience, worth the pages of a best selling book. Where each chapter has its own plot.


- How do you co-operate with other special effect artist in order to create realistic effect?

While there is an incredible amount of high class talent in the feature production business, no production is ever done by just an individual. It’s always the product of a constant collaboration that flows from the brain of visionary directors to the hands of skillful visual artist, and back.

Providing the perfect backdrop for this collaboration is what usually makes some productions more successful than others.

In that context. Creativity is the true fusion of the best ideas shared by this pool of minds, independently from which level of production you are at.

Management’s job is to feed and support this fusion, not to drive it.

And the working environment is one that allows trust and respect between all parties, while avoiding mechanical routines.

In other words. No piece of hardware or software will make a visually pleasant picture by itself unless someone infuses it with a soul. As George Sand once said “ The artist vocation is to send light into the human heart.”.

And to paraphrase Arthur C. Clark, I believe that a true collaboration between visionaries and artists is what makes “any sufficiently advanced (CG) technology indistinguishable from magic”.


- What does it mean to you to create a good quality effect?

Any good CG effect that you would call as such is an effect that live for its purpose. Which most of the time is to support the action or the plot at hand.

In a live action feature, I tend to be in awe when the effect is helping experiencing that perfect Suspension Of Disbelief. Which is, the willingness to suspend logic and criticism for the sake of enjoying the unbelievable.

As soon as any effect breaks from its purpose or it is not up to the task at hand, your brain will tend to over analyze the visuals and, as such, take you away from the overall experience.

It is interesting to see that movies such as Jurassic Park are still holding their ground nowadays. Where more modern vfx productions tend to look dated very quickly. From that point of view, it appears to me that a quite a common mistake today is to overcompensate visuals with camera work, digital grading and computer generated work for the sake of the effect, more than to serve the story and the truth of the moment.


- If it is possible for you to share tips about creating good quality effect?

1- The generalist at heart.

One question that I get quite often during my seminars is what should new vfx artists focus on. Is it specializing on a tool? Or learning a discipline? Or mastering a specific skill?

It is a fact that higher level Studios tend to hire people with well defined talents that fit in specific operational labels. In this way it is easier for them to fulfill recruitment numbers and satisfy production’s immediate needs.

What happens after wards, when you start working as a VFX artist, is not always as well defined. The flexible nature of feature production cycles and delivery deadlines is often a catalyst for a multitude of variations in an artist’s work life. Especially on the post-production side of a digital

pipeline. For that reason, I notice that people with more generic skills, with an ability to adapt to new processes and a genuinely open nature tend to fit in better and last longer throughout various projects.

The exception here being artists with dedicated PHDs and/or masters of a very specific domain, which makes them highly specialized in the VFX crowd and able to have a niche of their own.

Looking at the software or hardware side of things, technology is still progressing on a daily basis. And will continue doing so. To this extent, many facilities rely on proprietary technology. Thus specializing on a single tool, without learning the CG art’s basics, is also a dangerous game to play. You may end up being obsolete along the program you have learned. Or, in the best case, having a very limited number of facilities you can apply to.

What I suggest as a general rule to young VFX artists is to focus their energies in learning all that constitutes the basis of a successful career in computer graphic, along with improving their natural talent. So. From understanding modeling. To lighting and color. From rigging to animation. From procedural cycles to FX mechanism.

Doing so, building the knowledge necessary not only to satisfy a possible recruitment position, but also to be able to interact with people with different talents in a large facility. And as such, have enough confidence to quickly help and fit it in the bigger picture, which often forms these complex production pipelines.

On that note, competition for very few spots in a large studio is also a challenge when combined with trying to win the attention of a busy HR office or of a busy VFX Supervisor.

When applying for a VFX position, it is quite beneficial to have a very clear introduction letter, which simply states in one line the discipline you are applying for. That being for example: modeling, animation, texturing, shading, … But never indicating more than one discipline at the time. Then in the body of the introduction letter describe that, if need arises, you could also help covering other positions which fit along your skills.

Finally, supporting your application with a very short demo reel (one minute top, possibly less) that shows and clearly labels your very best work in the main discipline you are applying for and clarifies your side skills, wherever those are applicable. To this extent, if you are interested in multiple disciplines, it is highly recommended to prepare multiple introduction letters and related demo reels to satisfy each separate application.

2-What constitute the best production pipeline.

There is always a lot of pride in winning accolades in the VFX industry. And deservedly so. The amount of energy, investments, time and talent required to achieve such a task is, to say the least, overwhelming. Very few Studios and individuals have the sensibility,
experience and organization to pull that feat.

In support of these cycles, there is also a lot of new technology and specialized tools which continuously push the boundaries of what is achievable in computer graphic on a daily basis. To the point that I am confident the majority of senior VFX people in the industry would agree that we are still at the beginning of this exploration, in many ways.

Where a painter is looking for an intimate inspiration to fill in his lonely blank canvas, with a brush and a small collection of colors at his disposal. CG is often the product of a perfect balance between a crowd of ambitions, thousands of frames, a multitude of digital gadgets and a variety of complex mediums.

The combination of new visions and new science is also what makes organizing these complex VFX tasks an expensive challenge in itself, worth the efforts of the most influential CTOs and producers around the world.

A challenge well described in a white-paper about The Status Of Visual Effects written by Renee Dunlop, Paul Malcolm, Eric Roth for the Visual Effects Society in July 2008.
Between the pages, the writers detail a few of the biggest obstacles currently affecting production:
- The difficulty to determine who is in charge of certain creative decisions.
- Directors and Producers’ mixed approach to pre and post visualization.
- The lack of consistency and resources between pre, mid and post production.
- A lack of consistency throughout pipelines, mainly due to the impact of new technologies.

Most of the time, this translates into a very costly, “brute-force” solution workflow. Which, in its own, destabilize any reasonable software production schemes that Studios are willing to invest into.
While a collection of good stable software it’s a fair base for any visual effects venture, I firmly believe that to defy these challenges the core of any VFX pipeline should be a software agnostic one.

All CG elements should be able to be translated effortlessly across tools, independently from their original disciplines’ unique requirements.
And, more than the compartmentalized organization used in other markets, the key structure of this pipeline should focus on the flow of data and the quality of the inventory.
The rest is important, but not essential.

By achieving such a system, the work environment would prove to:
. Be flexible enough to maintain integrity across platforms and departments.
. Allow modifications to the software infrastructure without affecting deliverables.
. Accept various in house and external content.
. And deliver quality without jeopardizing speed.

Overall and independently from the approach, the support of flow of data and of inventory quality is for me a critical element that would help any production survive under the majority of modern, commercial delivery stress requirements.
This framework would help maintaining productivity stable even with continuous changes in a feature’s vision and objectives.

Finally, it would help training the modern VFX artist not to rely on those unique tools or solutions which are software centric and bound to expiry when new technology arises. Thus keeping skills and talent always applicable to the task at hand, to the long lasting benefit of the production studio.

To support such a mechanism, facilities should consider researching and investing into :
. A stable, software independent, browser based, asset and shot manager.
. A solid look development structure.
. A software independent, script based, rendering management solution.

And an asset living in this environment should sport basic qualities such as:
. being version-able
. being hash-able
. being track-able
. being verbose
. being software and hierarchic relation agnostic
. being self-contained
. supporting expandable qualities
. supporting temporally and shading stable procedural decimation


- Can you give a word of inspiration to those who wish to participate as VFX artist

If anyone is willing to notice it or not, the vast majority of top grossing movies coming out every year are now filled with special effects created by a new wave of craftsmen who share their talent all around the world.

We are living in a period where the new DaVincis, Botticellis and Galileos live their life, comfortably seating in front of a computer. Creating a new art form which converts ones and zeros into a visually pleasing virtual reality. All this while offering their artistry away from language, race and belief barriers.

The knowledge required to achieve such a task is still a mix of an incredible amount of disciplines.

From biology and zoology, to physics and mathematics. From sculpting to painting. From astronomy to molecular chemistry.

It is an incredible opportunity to have a working career, learning about all aspects of life, while creating a new Suspension Of Disbelief

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