From manipulating the imagery of live-action footage to creating characters like the titular bear in “Paddington,” the CGI Autobots in “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” and even bringing former ones back from the dead, such the “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” character Grand Moff Tarkin, the advances in visual effects technology has given filmmakers exponential freedom to literally create anything they can imagine.
A perfect example of the unique power and possibilities that new digital technologies have brought to modern filmmaking is Chinese VFX artist and film director Zhaoyu Zhou’s recent film “Last Dance,” which earned the Best Experimental Film Award at the Miami Short Film Festival and was chosen as a Semifinalist by the 2017 Adobe Design Achievement Awards.
An experimental motion capture visualization film, “Last Dance” tells the ancient Chinese romance story “Farewell My Concubine” in the way of Peking Opera, a traditional Chinese performing art that combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics.
”I came up with this idea and concept back in 2015 since I have family and relatives engaged in Peking Opera performances, and I have also been influenced by this traditional performing arts since childhood,” explains Zhou. “By creating this film I wanted to depict Peking Opera in a new form, while also giving audiences the opportunity to experience this traditional Chinese performing art.”
Zhou shot “Last Dance” using famous Peking Opera artist Zhang Ming, who assisted in the choreography and performed the dance as both the King and the Concubine simultaneously on a motion capture stage. Zhou then transferred the motion capture data into Houdini where he created the dynamic simulation effects we see on screen. A data intensive film, Zhou also brought in Houdini FX artist Debra Isaac, who’s known for her visual effects work on the documentary films “Holy Man: The USA VS. Douglas White” and “Wildest Weather in the Solar System.”
“Motion visualization is a newer form of storytelling, and it utilizes the most advanced VFX techniques. The final visual look is achieved through the effects of dynamic simulation. I used Mantra to render and Nuke to composite,” Zhou explains. “There are no texture maps on the two characters, so in order to achieve the elegant look I had to tweak the light and shader material.”
The film, which has also been chosen as an Official Selection of the 2018 USC First Look Film Festival, is visually beautiful, with Zhou’s master skill in VFX making it possible for the figures to dance gracefully across the screen. Zhou’s minimalist style in “Last Dance” provides a lot of space for the viewer’s imagination. The dynamic fluidity of the characters, their bright colors– a key representation of the costumes in Peking Opera performances, and they way he structures the two characters, with the King coming across with a level of sharpness and the Concubine with smooth rounded edges, make “Last Dance” a rich expression of innovation and a homage to tradition at the same time.
Another key element to the film, one that helps create an emotional experience for the viewer, gives life to the characters and drives Zhou’s concept of blending the traditional with the modern is the accompanying music.
He says, “This kind of experimental work using motion capture and CG not only require a unique visual style, but they also need to be fully integrated with the music to achieve the best audio visual experience. I am so grateful to my composer Meizhen He for creating the music.”
Zhou, who’s originally from Qingdao, China, began his career a little over five years ago, and what he’s accomplished since is nothing short of amazing. Lately Zhou has been pulling in award after award for his films, which for the most part, are either animated or created through motion visualization techniques. His seasoned skill as a VFX artist is definitely one of his most powerful assets, one that is matched only by his unique creativity and the stories he’s driven to tell.
Some of Zhou’s other films include the 2017 animated film “Karma,” which earned more than nine Best Animation Awards at festivals including the Los Angeles Film Awards and Asians on Film Festival, as well as the Award of Distinction at Greece’s Athens Animation Festival, the 2016 film “Spherical,” which was chosen as an Official Selection of the Melbourne International Animation Festival, the Adobe Design Achievement Awards and more, as well as “Reunion,” “Dancing Blue” and others.
Considering Zhou had already proven his strengths as a narrative storyteller through his previous work, and being someone who’s driven to push his personal creative boundaries, “Last Dance” was the perfect opportunity for the VFX artist and filmmaker to experiment with his craft and create something new.
“This time I wanted to try something new. I saw a lot of experimental works in the beginning. The ones I found most inspirational are the series of motion visualization films by Universal Everything in the UK and WOW studio in Japan,” explains Zhou. “Minimalism combined with surrealism, and integrated with the Chinese Opera is such an innovation. Being able to innovate and combine traditional art with modern technology has always been my pursuit.”
Thanks to his vast knowledge and experience with VFX, Zhou was able to translate an age old form of performance and storytelling into the experimental and wildly creative concept that he envisioned in his mind; and created something audiences across the globe could enjoy.
“It was such an amazing journey for me. My favorite part was transferring the design and concept to the final look through the way of VFX by using Houdini. I couldn’t imagine making this happen without VFX,” says Zhou, adding that, “motion visualization has never been easy but it has challenged me to move forward without fear.”
Filmmakers are always searching for a better way to communicate the message and feeling of a story. The characters found in their creations are a means for the viewer to identify the experiences and emotions in their own lives, or the ones they hope to avoid. In the upcoming feature film Design 7 of Love, the filmmakers took advantage of the vision and talent of VFX Artist James Chen to manifest the state of mind of one of the central characters in a very disorienting situation. The film connects the unexpected association of architecture and emotions, or perhaps more accurately…the effect of these on one’s mind. Using state of the art technology in CG, they enlisted Hi-Organic Motiongraphics to do what so many productions desire, to display that which cannot be filmed. Taking a key role in this, Chen worked on some of the most surreal moments in the film. The integration of this tool and the cooperation between artist like Chen and filmmakers continues to be the type of visuals to moviegoers that were nonexistent until the last several years. While CG has allowed the creators of these films to display almost any scenario on screen, the role of artists like James Chen is to make them so real that we almost question our own senses.
The VFX work which James was charged with creating is integral to telling Design 7 of Love properly. One must understand the surreal nature of the storyline in order to appreciate how important Chen’s work on the film was. Yet, even prior to this one must understand that the word “design” in Chinese has two meanings. The first is the dictionary definition meaning “to decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object)”, the second is “to set up someone or something, in a relatively negative way.” The word “design” in this film has both of the meanings in many cases, especially when everyone is trying to “design” a scenario or situation in order to “set up” someone in the emotional world. The beautiful protagonist of the story is Doris, an interior Designer. Her ex-boyfriend Bartz hopes to repair their relationship by providing her with a senior designer position in the architecture studio where he works. This only serves to enrage Emma, the company’s other designer who seems to have feeling towards Bartz. The studio’s pitching process to a hotel goes smoothly as Doris’ presentation impresses the hotel’s young owner Mark, both with her design concept and herself. Doris suddenly becomes the studio’s hot shot. The studio owner Andrew hopes to ensure the company’s revenue by landing the hotel as a client. To achieve this, he encourages (essentially orders) Doris to starting dating Mark. Doris pretends to date Mark to justify her cold actions towards Bartz, leaving Bartz devastated and also making Mark more and more confused. Doris does not fully accept nor deny either of the two men’s pursuits. As the relationship between the characters becomes more and more complex, Doris’ mind world starts to twist. In a congruent fashion, all her “designs” metaphorically turn her vision of this supposed “beautifully designed” city into a pile of monstrosity, reflecting what’s in her own mind. In the end, Doris, Bartz, Mark, Andrew, Emma, and the other two studio staff [Chang and Chiz] all have their own “design” to “set someone up” in love or other affairs. The director of Design 7 of Love even created a scene in which all the characters act like they are “actors” instead of film characters, conveying to the audience “being set up.” The overall theme is that what we label “love” may actually be the result of a “design.” It’s the ability to see the merging of imagination of the mind (brought about by the emotional turmoil) that becomes part of reality that James manifested for the film. Doris’ main work objective is to provide new design to the hotel to make it a part of Taipei’s new “world design capital” title, but her emotional state has become chaotic and unstable as a result of her complex social relationship. When she wants to make things more clear, more simple, more “designed”, the outside world becomes more complex. This resulted in an approach that Chen describes as “anti-beauty.”
An ideal example of this is in the “Growing Monstrosity” scenes. So called because of the evolving appearance of the city, these changes are a direct effect of the chaos in the emotional state of Doris. Window fences, excessed vent pipes, and poles start to grow from the walls of the street view instead of beautiful decorations. These reflects the character’s mind. Metaphoric steel fences appear as a sign of Doris’ insecurity. James and the team came up with 40 base mechanical objects which were considered elemental to a structure, from factory pipes to a variety of small metal fences to serve as parts pool. The combination of the objects and scripted sequence transformation animation created a large number of wall structures with different shapes, providing a sufficient amount of complexity for the “growing monster” atmosphere in a fast way. The “shattered dream” scene contains CG environment and VFX with green screen footage. Doris is seen standing on a ladder made of piano keys, enjoying the “beautiful dream” environment which reflects her feeling at the time. The scene is designed to have a full CG environment. Later in the film the scene starts to collapse with every step she runs on the ladder as the dream becomes a nightmare. James states, “My colleagues and I utilized a vast amount of relief sculpture photo and traced them onto the models with Zbrush to enhance the details which made the Thinking Particles-powered fragmentation FX more convincing and beautiful.”
Hi-Organic Motiongraphics Kai-Zhen Lee was FX Lead on the film and explains what made Chen such an asset, stating, “James has experienced a vast variety of CG animation positions which made him very resourceful when facing technical difficulties. He often provided quick and sometimes unorthodox solutions for FX problems regarding the interactions between software functions from time to time. It was thanks to his knowledge, experience, and ingenuity that we were able to create such a unique look for Design 7 of Love.” A result of this was the film’s nomination for “Best Visual Effects” at the prestigious 51st Golden Horse Awards. With over fifty years of filmmaking history to the Golden Horse Awards, the nomination for “Best Visual Effects” places Chen and Hi-Organic Motiongraphics among the most recognized in Taiwan, Hong-Kong, & China. The connection between the images he creates and their effect on viewers is always present in his thoughts. James relates, “In order to get photos of Taipei city with a clear view for this film, the team somehow managed to negotiate with one of the TV stations to give us access to their helipad, which is a rare occasion. It’s not a view that many people get and it is beautiful! When you are up on a tall building and overlooking the city you appreciate the perspective. It’s times like these when I realize that my job is to give other people the ability to see things with the same awe that I experience. I love that part of what I do.”
From the first frame and song of Pressure-Man (writer/director Kai Kuei-Chieh Hsu’s musical comedy) you instantly recognize the color of John Potter’s suit and tie as prominently as his singing. This is by design. The theatrical, somewhat fanciful approach is designed to place the viewer into accepting the “sleepwalking” lifestyle that the main character John is immersed in. The colors are over the top on purpose. The color makes a subliminal impact, it’s the reason that the filmmakers approached colorist Hugo Shih to use his expertise on Pressure-Man. Even the scene over the closing credits shows the wild color schemes Shih can use to great effect. The heart of the film is intact regardless of the color, but it is the talent which Hugo brings that truly gives this film the character to make it stand out as unique. Among its many recognitions were: 2016 American Movie Award (Best Production / Art Direction (Winner), 2016 Praxis Film Festival (Audience Awards), & Official Selection of the 2015 Los Angeles International Film Festival Awards (Winner – Best Comedy/Dramedy). In hopes of understanding why Kai Hsu and this production were so intent on having Shih work on Pressure-Man as the colorist, we spoke with him in order to understand his role and the essential parts of his vocation. Because the film is so stylized in terms of its use of color, it is a perfect example of what a colorist is capable of doing in modern cinema.
In current American society, Pressure-Man is the norm. This film is about an accountant who is so tied to his job that he doesn’t take the time to participate in actual life with his family. The idea of living to work rather than working to live is ingrained into the life of many in the US. Pressure-Man is as subtle as a sledgehammer, which is exactly what is needed to wake the main character John (and many of us) from this enslavement. In pursuing the dream, we forget to live the dream, which is exactly what Hsu is saying in this film…about everyone, not simply those in the film. To create such an altered state, Hsu worked closely with Hugo in creating the approach he wanted for a color scheme.
From the opening scene, Shih’s handy work is evident. As Pressure-Man introduces himself and the film in song, his brightly colored suit and bow tie grab the viewer’s attention as a spotlight illuminates him. The director wanted everything but the Pressure-Man hidden so Hugo added a lot of mask, covering everything else and tracked the actor, so that the mask would follow with him. It’s a technique which the viewer doesn’t notice but focuses the attention right where the filmmaker desires it to be. Even the transition from the opening song into the action of the film required Hugo’s expertise. Shih explains, “There was one shot we worked on very long time, which is the shot when Pressure-man stops dancing and starts to introduce us to the main character and the idea of the story. The Director wanted the lighting to look like he was using dimmer. It was difficult because it wasn’t shot this way. I needed to add the dimmer effect myself. In order to achieve this, I brought down everything at the background but the Pressure-man. Secondly, I key framed the background to gradually light it up, but without effect on the Pressure-man. Sometimes the director wanted it as dark as possible, but without losing any of the detail. Thus, the director and I were looking for a balanced light that we could both be happy about. I like working with directors that have specific ideas and requirements. Even though their requests might be difficult, we can build a style of communication. I know how to achieve many things as a colorist but if I learn how to communicate better and more easily with the directors and cinematographers I work with, I will work more and we will all enjoy the process.” Describing another shot in the film, Shih states, “There is a shot in which the Pressure-man is in the bathtub with father. When I graded this scene, the director asked me to make it look like the actors were in their own little world. I made the spotlight stronger, and used two shapes to mask out the sides to be dark. Then I added overall blur to simulate the steam because I want to make more feeling of taking shower. There was also a scene in which the father has a nightmare. He dreams that every member of his family has become a ‘Pressure- Man’. This was composed of multiple green screen shots. Because we have a rushing to meet our deadline, I decided to do compositing in a color grading software. Before I was able to do that, I had to do a perfect color balancing so that I could get a clean key and make a proper composition. It isn’t exciting to hear about but the finished product really made the director excited.”
A common misconception about the colorist job on a film is that they only deal with grades and tones of color. Because of the work they do and its effect on the action taking place in the frame, they often control how the lighting feels on film as well as the color. Because the colorist almost always performs their work after the filming has taken place, it is important that they work closely with the director and have a strong sense of why the lighting was established on set during filming. Just as with the actors, the environment in which the colorist performs his/her work is crucial to achieving the proper effect. The working environment of a colorist is very different from other positions on a production. During a color session, the room must be totally dark. There only light which can be turned on is a 6500 daylight lamp because it will adjust to the colorist’s eyes once they go out of the room and come back in. Also, the room must be 18% Gray (which is a neutral color and won’t reflect any colors to influence the eyes of the colorist towards the image). A colorists’ room also requires specialized equipment to aid in the color grade process, making things efficient and accurate. Hugo Shih’s work in Pressure-Man highlights the impact of the role of a colorist in modern film. While many audiences may not understand the substantial amount of time required and the valuable expertise that Hugo possesses; the look of the film stands as proof that his contributions create a unique and artistic experience.
Simone Lombardo has always known he wanted to do visual effects. Although it may not have been a dominant industry, growing up in Liege, Belgium, he never strayed from that path.
From the time he was eight and first had the opportunity to play with a computer in school, Lombardo had a passion. He did not accept just being good, he is exceptional. And since then, he has worked on films and video games that have been recognized all over the world.
Lombardo worked on the visual effects for the blockbuster films The Maze Runner and The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, which together grossed over $600 million in the box offices worldwide. Lombardo’s touch is a contributor to that.
“Maze Runner Escape Version was really special, because it gave me the opportunity to test my pipeline, a pipeline in which not many people believed in. I always wanted to use game engine technology to render movies. Doing the escape version of Maze Runner was a big chance to prove it could work. We had so many shots to do in such a short time, but the pipeline held it together and we did deliver. This was the first time, (and only time I believe, with Maze Runner Scorch Trials Escape) that a game engine was used to render a AAA movie for theatrical release,” he described. “I use this project as proof that I was not crazy when, 5 years ago, I was advocating to use game engine instead of renderer for movies. I’ve done it, proved it can be done, I can now move to the next step.”
The Maze Runner films are widely regarded as having outstanding visual effects, and Lombardo’s vision saw to that.
“It was a year of taking risks, but finally it was done,” he continued. “Some people before that were not taking video game engine seriously.”
Lombardo’s determination to stay up-to-date with technology in his industry has led him to be recognized internationally in his field. He was an honorable mention at the CG Society International Challenge Spectacular, and first runner up at the Journey Begins. He won the Vocation Foundation Price in Belgium, in the CG Animation category in 2007, and is in the official 3dsmax Bible Book of 2008 and 2009.
He also had the opportunity to work on several commercials during his career with the production company Luxoom, an experience that Lombardo describes as “special.”
“I went to China without really any idea of what I would be doing, but I ended up at Luxoom, fresh from my training in Visual FX and particles work, and I had the chance to be one of the only people there with understanding of fluid dynamic and advance particles work,” he said. “So working at Luxoom let me use that knowledge on amazing project, and work with great brand like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes. But even more, it taught me efficiency. We had no time to do these projects, while in movies you have rarely have enough time to do what you really want, in commercials it’s even more challenging. We did one mini-cooper event video in 2 days once, from storyboard to shooting and post. And we were only 4 guys.”
“What I liked as well, is that it was the first time I saw general manager being so hands-on. Tobias Sievers, the GM of Luxoom Shanghai at the time, was an amazing artist and technical guy. Many times he jumped on the project and actually made it so that we would deliver. He was at the office longer than anybody else. This was a great experience and a big learning step in my life” he continued.
Alexandre Ouairy worked with Lombardo at Luxoom for a variety of different commercials.
“Simone Lombardo and myself work together on several national and international campaign during our time in China, at Luxoom and Idcreation. While pushing the limit of technology and executing pixel perfect 3D rendering for the like of Porsche, BMW, Audi, Nike, he was simultaneously taking online courses learning to program particles rendering,” said Ouairy. “It is always mesmerizing to see the speed of execution Simone can achieve and the dedication he put to is work, mixing his learning from the world of video game production with 3D rendering. Simone shows a passion and commitment to its industry that you rarely see.”
Lombardo uses the skills he has from working on video games such as Soul Caliber V, Resident Evil, and films such as Hugo and combines the two different technologies.
“They are really different but similar industries,” he said. “I like working on both video games and film. I like the polishing and real-life implementation of the movies part, and the time you can spend on one shot. But there is also frustration on the time you have to wait, and the politics involved. On the other side, video games are all about optimization. You have a finite number of memory, any draw call you can save, the better it is. It’s cheating to the extreme, but everything is real time.”
It is no wonder that with knowing the technology so intricately, Lombardo is regarded as an expert in visual effects in both film and gaming.
The film editor is one of cinema’s true behind the scenes wizards, one who can escalate the intensity of any sequence, deftly manipulating the action and emotion in a way few other production contributors—whether writer, actor or director—are as readily able to match. Russian editor and visual effects supervisor Pavel Khanyutin, known for cutting with surgical precision and an acute sense of pace, is an ideal example of this dynamic, almost alchemical skill.
For more than a decade, Khanyutin has exerted a strong influence on his country’s visual experience, as a film editor and through his influential use of CGI—he made significant impact supervising VFX in Timur Bekmambetov’s popular 2004 fantasy thriller Night Watch and Andrey Kavun’s 2010 war drama Kandagar. He also excels in his other professional capacity, conceiving and directing commercial advertising spots.
Khanyutin’s relish is evident in whatever he takes on, and his 16 years as a creator of television spots for high end prestige clients have been an enjoyable pursuit that has produced many notable achievements, crafting memorable pieces for Google, Coca Cola, Ikea, Pepsi’s Adrenaline Rush, Panasonic, Mars, Nike, cellular network Megafon and many others.
“In advertising the tough deadlines and limited time make the process almost like a competitive sport.” Khanyutin said. “However, there always remain enough possibilities for creative work, in the storytelling and sophisticated editing.”
But it’s working as an editor and visual effects supervisor where he derives the most satisfaction; in Russia, after all, the art of film cutting has a particularly rich heritage, going back to groundbreaking mid-1920’s giants Sergei Eisenstein and Grigor Aleksandrov.
“In editing, the possibilities are nearly unlimited, and it’s almost impossible to overestimate its importance.” Khanyutin said. “It’s a language in which films speak to the viewer’s unconsciousness, and it can deliver every shade of emotion, just as speech does. This is the most interesting, most complicated aspect and is also what allows a film to really get inside a viewer’s head. It’s almost like metaphysics—a visual philosophy.”
“Each project is interesting in its own way.” He said. “Editing documentary films is a very special process, you could almost say that the movie is coming to life in the editing room—getting precise emotions, different shades, from the material is the challenge—to create a great piece of work. I am lucky that I had a lot of documentary experience at the beginning of my career.”
Khanyutin’s personal involvement with every project is intense. “Working on a feature film is a different matter.” Khanyutin said. “To tell a colorful story, it’s very important to really dip down into it, to lead everything through one’s own self, to believe in characters, yet always be sensible. Then every cut will be as conscious and meaningful as sounds in speech. And the time spent in the editing room—it could be one month or one year—becomes part of you. You even see it in dreams.”
That tireless commitment to film gains Khanyutin tremendous professional advantage. “I’ve worked with Pavel as directors and editors always work together—I’ve dropped material off at his door to do with as he pleases, and I’ve sat, lurking over his shoulder, for up to a dozen hours at a time.” Film maker-screenwriter Michael Kupisk said. “In both cases I found Pavel’s instinct and touch to be invaluable in terms of defining the final outcome of the product. He was able to show me angles and methods of delivering a beat or turn that I hadn’t anticipated and is always thinking of how to make the movie better. What I admire most about Pavel is his innate rhythm and instinct. He adds something to the project that is satisfying to both the filmmakers’ vision and the audience’s viewership of the material.”
Khanyutin’s singular grasp on how best to manipulate raw footage is an invaluable asset, and his singular propensity to anticipate and deliver a finished product that really reaches deep down into an audience’s emotions qualifies him as a cinema auteur with illimitable potential. For Khanyutin, his professional goals are simple and straightforward, best summed up in three words:
Living in the modern age we are bombarded by hundreds of commercials per day. As viewers when most of these ads hit the screen we often tune out in order to deal with the overwhelming overload of these messages.
So what does it take for a commercial to stand out and strike the interest of an audience in a world oversaturated with visual sales pitches?
Well, having a seasoned motion graphics designer like Vitaly Verlov behind the screen has proven to be an integral factor in the success of campaigns for global companies like Max Factor, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Nokia, Samsung and countless others.
Over the years Verlov has amassed prodigious knowledge in terms of the technical methods involved in creating everything from multi-layered motion graphics to seamless visual effects. Beyond his technical skills though, his creative vision has made him a highly sought after talent in the industry. In fact, earlier this year he handled all of the visual effects on the upcoming film Redux, a sci-fi film starring Oscar nominee Eric Roberts from the films Inherent Vice, The Dark Knight, The Cable Guy and many more. What is even more astonishing is the fact that Verlov also wrote and directed the highly anticipated film.
His prowess as a motion graphics designer and visual effects artist have allowed him to take on projects that others in the industry who are only skilled in one of these two areas could not.
While you may not know the face of Vitaly Verlov, if you’ve ever tuned into MTV, VH1, Friday! Or Russia’s RUTV, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve seen his work more than once over the last decade.
To find out more about Vitaly Verlov’s captivating work make sure to check out our interview below!
VV: My name is Vitaly Verlov and I was born in the city of Novosibirsk, Russia. After graduating in 2007 I moved to Moscow to work as a motion graphics designer and visual effect artist for television and film.
IFR: How and when did you first get into doing visual effects work?
VV: In high school and university I did a lot of computer programming because I was a computer geek back then, and even before that I came across an international computer art subculture called Demoscene. Essentially it’s a community where young programmers, artists and musicians get together – for fun – to make demos: computer programs that produce audio-visual presentations in real-time. The visual side of creating a demo implies that you actually program algorithms to achieve a certain artistic effects on screen. To put it short, it’s awesome. As soon as my programming skills got up to speed, I started making graphical demos with some cool looking visual effects and showcasing them on so called “demoparties.” As a matter of fact, my thesis work was focused on developing a toolset for real-time motion graphics and visual effects production.
Later on I became more interested in non real-time photorealistic imaging and switched from computer graphics programming to producing visual effects, design and animation in a more traditional industry-applicable form and started doing broadcast motion graphics for television.
IFR: What inspired you to pursue this profession?
VV: After seeing some television channels that were neatly designed from a graphical standpoint or motion pictures packed with great visual effects, I really wanted to become a part of it.
IFR: Are there any particular artists that inspire you?
VV: In my early days I was fascinated with some of the broadcast design graphics on TV and dreamed about getting to this level of quality and impression. That’s what basically inspired me to learn, more than personalities. However after moving to Moscow, I had an opportunity to meet with some of the great guys behind those outstanding designs and work with them.
IFR: What kind of training was involved in order to become a VFX artist? How important is formal education to getting a job in the industry?
VV: I personally don’t have any special VFX related training. Nor do most of the other artists I know. Basically, to become a VFX artist or motion designer, it’s important to have a natural artistic sense and a good eye plus the ability to efficiently handle technical tools and software. On the other hand, it’s also a matter of specialty in the industry, for instance: environmental concept artists or matte painters often have a background in fine arts. One thing is true for everyone working in VFX: you don’t stop learning, no matter what your specialty is.
IFR: What is that you love about being a VFX artist?
VV: The ability to create something impressive out of nothing; and the ability to impress girls at parties, of course.
IFR: What is your specialty in the field?
VV: As a VFX artist, I consider myself a generalist which means that I can pull off a wide variety of tasks myself, including modeling, texturing, animating, rendering, compositing. There are fields that I prefer more, and there are fields I’m not involved in at all – like character modeling and rigging.
As a motion/broadcast graphics designer and art director, again, I can do a lot, starting from initial creative concept to final delivery.
IFR: What is your typical workflow like in terms of collaborating with other artists on a film?
VV: It depends on a project and/or studio. Sometimes workflow is precise, broken down into stages and compartmentalized with strict deadlines, sometimes it’s a complete mess and overnight hell. The most positive experience is of course when you focus on something specific you really like and are good at. This way of collaborating is very efficient and creative at the same time.
IFR: You also work as a motion graphics designer, can you tell us a little bit about what that entails?
VV: Sure. Essentially motion graphics design is an animation-oriented subset of graphic design. Graphic design is just a single picture. Motion design is graphic design in sequence, in motion, and you see it pretty much everywhere: opening sequences for TV shows, film titles, game console menus, or photo-realistic 3D smartphone magically spinning in mid-air in a smartphone TV or Web commercial, or even user interface animation within that smartphone. In other words, any animated piece in visual medium is a subject of motion design.
That’s what I’ve been doing for various television channels including MTV, VH1, Friday!, and others. Sometimes there is client input on the initial concept of what we’re trying to achieve, sometimes there is no input. When there is no input, I also work as a copywriter where I suggest different ideas or scripts on how an end result might look and what meanings/themes it might have behind it. When the concept is approved, we move on to actual motion design.
IFR: How does being a motion graphics editor differ from working as a VFX artist?
VV: Motion graphics is a general term. It’s something that visually can be executed in different ways and styles. It can be two-dimensional, flat design-ish/illustrated looking as well as filmic three-dimensional. I think my direction is more filmic/three-dimensional oriented, that’s why it depends substantially on the visual effects techniques. For example, for a commercial spot for Peugeot the idea was to make a realistic car driving along a stylized miniature street – stuff like that directly relies on VFX techniques because it requires 3D modeling, rendering and compositing as a part of the workflow. In a sense, for such projects VFX is a way to implement the creative idea. That’s where motion graphics and VFX come together.
On the other hand, there are motion graphics projects where VFX techniques are not required for natural reasons. For instance, I have experience making on-screen graphics as a part of graphics package for several television stations where the task was to design the look and feel of info graphic elements that pop up during a broadcast. While these elements look pretty minimalistic, they should have a thought-out motion behavior and structure that keeps the integrity of the overall design. Sometimes the way these elements pop up on screen, interact with the viewer, and disappear is hard to conceptualize. That’s where “design” in the “motion graphics design” title comes to the forefront.
IFR: How has having skills as both a VFX artist and a motion graphics designer separated you from others in the industry?
VV: I think VFX and motion graphics are storytelling devices, and I always try to approach projects from the storytelling perspective. So for me the primary task is not making a neat looking animation or effect but supporting and enhancing the context it is a part of. Motion graphics is about guiding the viewer’s attention and it’s also very important for visual effects shots. What separates me is a good understanding of these aspects which, in real life, means that a client is usually happy with the timing, pace and accents I put into designs during the early stages of production, which is cool because it eliminates the need to reiterate on that so I can spend more time perfecting the visuals.
IFR: What companies have you worked with in the industry?
VV: Since I consider myself motion graphics oriented, I have more experience working on commercials and on-air broadcast design.
As a lead designer and VFX artist, I worked for the Russian branch of MTV and VH1 Networks and nation-wide entertainment television channel Friday! As an art director and motion graphics designer, I’ve done quite a few projects for a major music television channel, RUTV. Specifically, I created motion graphics and the overall design for the RUTV 2014 annual music awards ceremony, and some pieces for its 2015 installment.
As a freelance designer and VFX artist, I’ve done a bunch of commercials for international brands, including Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Max Factor, Nokia, Samsung, Eurovision, Sensation, plus a variety of Russian brands like Beeline (a major mobile operator in Russia).
As a lead VFX artist, I have several projects done for the US-based boutique postproduction company Coat of Arms. Also, I have great experience working for the international visual effects company Pixomondo (Game of Thrones) as a lead 2D effects artist.
Working for various international companies and clients gives a pretty solid understanding of how the global industry works as well as flexibility in the way you approach projects in terms of planning and workflow because the process makes the result.
IFR: Can you tell us a little bit about the television and film projects you’ve worked on; and the specific contributions you made?
VV: I’ve done a lot of TV show openers and channel idents, in a team of designers and by myself, including works for MTV Networks, nation-wide channels Friday!, and RUTV.
While working for Friday! I had a positive interaction with the broadcast design department of Les télécréateurs (Paris) who designed overall on-air look of this station. I’ve made a few show openers and extra identity pieces based on the existing visual style of the station. And for RUTV I created motion graphics and design for the RUTV 2014 annual music awards ceremony which was a pretty huge amount of work (a show opener, a set of nominees, promo spots, press materials) on a tight schedule – that’s where the ability to sit focused for 18 hours came in handy.
Also, recently I had a chance to work as a lead 2D VFX artist on a Chinese big budget sci-fi feature film called Impossible, which is scheduled to hit the market sometime this year. I came in when the postproduction was in full swing, and my job was to complete a bunch of VFX shots, mostly energy fields and portal effects.
I should mention that I’m a filmmaker myself with two sci-fi live action films already under my belt. The latest one, Redux, features the well-known Hollywood actor Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, The Expendables). It’s a short character-driven story with the ’80s/retro-futuristic vibe to it. I wrote, directed and edited this film and did visual effects.
IFR: Why is motion graphics design important to modern filmmaking?
VV: In its pure form, motion graphics design is critical for television and Internet – that’s for sure. Filmmaking also takes advantage of it, particularly big budget sci-fi & fantasy films and movie trailers, which are a marketing device. Film credits or sleek futuristic computer interfaces you see in a sci-fi flick is a product of motion graphics design. Sometimes it enhances the narrative story of a film, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s in there. Moreover, since motion design and VFX are somewhat interrelated fields, motion graphics can be essentially found in any film featuring visual effects. That’s also a good way to save some time and money during production, which is important, especially for independent narrative filmmakers like myself. Can a modern live action film be done with no VFX and motion design? Probably yes. But if it’s a mainstream (commercial) film, there should be a marketing/ad campaign involved and that’s where motion graphics comes for you again.
IFR: What has been your favorite project so far and why? What projects do you have coming up?
VV: Not sure about all-time favorites, but I can name a couple of recent ones. I was a part of a team who made a STRAFE® promotional spot for a successful Kickstarter compaign. STRAFE® is an independent old school first-person shooter video game. On this commercial, I worked as a lead VFX/motion design artist.
And of course I loved working on my second film Redux because I think it looks pretty neat, has a coherent story and stars well-known Hollywood actors.
As to the projects to come, some of my past TV clients have a brand new music channel in the works, and while there’s not much info available at this point it looks like I will be creating an onscreen design and several VFX heavy idents shot on green screen.
IFR: Do you have a passion for working on a specific kind of film or project, if so what kind of project and why?
VV: In the TV world, I would say, a show opener. When making a TV show opener, you’re actually making a focused 10-15 second piece which tells a story visually, and that’s what attracted me to the visual medium in the first place.
In film, I have a passion for working on my own films.
IFR: What would you say was your first foot in the door to the industry, and what advice would you give to aspiring artists?
VV: In 2006 I believe, I started making what I called the daily images: the goal was to make one new artistic image every day, just for fun and training, and post it on the Internet into a corresponding design community. I ended up making just a couple of images a week, but after a year of this marathon I was invited to work full-time at a prominent postproduction studio in Moscow, N3, because they liked my pictures. That’s basically how I got into this industry. So I guess my advice would be, stop being aspiring and start actually making something just for the sake of it, start the process and watch how everything unfolds.
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