Interview with Ethan Zhao (Ersi Zhao) VFX Art Director
VFX Art Director
1. You have worked on many big budget projects, tell us about the beginning: how did you start your digital artist career?
Ok let’s go way back. When I was very young, I loved the Korean film “Il Mare”.
In the movie, the main character is an architect and he builds his house by a lake. At that time I told myself “you are gonna build this house next to the beach one day”.
This is why I studied Engineering and Architecture design for my undergraduate and graduate degrees.
In my studies, I had my first experience with architectural animation and I was excited by the endless potential I found in the digital world.
In 2012, I moved to San Francisco to pursue a Masters degree in visual effects at the Academy of Art University.
Here, I discovered my passion for compositing from my instructor, Catherine Tate, the founder of the collaborative class called “Studio X”.
I was very happy to work on so many different projects in the program. Before graduating, I had collaborated on over 20 projects, films, and music videos (including some award winners), and got experience holding lead roles on projects.
At that time, I realized that I might be a workaholic! After graduating, I moved to Los Angeles and started out working on award- winning TV shows like “Gotham” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Soon after, I began working at Ingenuity Studios where I really grew my passion for VFX, team work, and art direction while working with the Creative Directors, Grant Miller and Dave Lebensfeld, and other producers and directors.
Eventually I was made VFX Art Director and got to manage teams on large projects including Taylor Swift’s VMA nominated “Look What You Made Me Do”, Jennifer Lopez’s VMA award winner “Dinero”, Oscar winner “Get Out”, and many Emmy winning TV shows like ”Grace and Frankie”, “Brooklyn 99”, and “Modern Family” and many more.
I think Im a very lucky guy, Im working on something I love.
2. What does it mean to be a VFX Art Director?
Well, it’s probably a little different at each studio – my job here overlaps with the Compositing Supervisor role on some projects. But as a VFX Art Director, I work closely with the project’s director and VFX supervisor to create a visual style for the project and find ways to implement it.
After the first round of “looks” are settled, I work with the CG and FX teams to direct creation of the assets.
Then I focus on compositing tests, and creating master templates for the comp team. I help the team to continue to improve the look throughout the project, and troubleshoot any problems. I will also occasionally go on set to help supervise production.
3. As an art director, you have to work with artists from all over the world and from different cultures.
How do you deal with them to finally merge into one single global vision?
Yes, I work with artists from all around the world, and that’s just lovely and makes work very interesting.
My father is a history major, and when `I was very young he told me so many interesting stories about how different people will be based on their culture and experiences.
And that’s the charm of world – we are all trying to change it into something we like.
So working with international artists is a treasure for me, I’m constantly learning from every artist, every supervisor, and gathering new perspectives, cultures, and experiences.
In order to make sure all the artists are on the same page, we have kick-off meetings to talk about new projects with all departments and discuss the potential technical challenges and art direction.
And then every morning will have progress meetings.
During meetings we will discuss every detail of the project and listen to artists’ ideas and concerns, then adjust the notes and begin our day.
4. What is the most difficult part to work on as VFX Art Director? Why?
I think to work in a lead role in any career, you need to have a larger vision of the project as a whole, and understand the project priorities, know how to spend your time wisely, and have your team deliver the best possible result.
The hardest part for me is not having the time to actually work on individual shots because so much of my time is spent overseeing the project and team – that’s the situation I’m always trying to avoid. You need to find the balance between managing the team and actual work. If you work on feature films, you usually have more time for look development, but if you work on television shows, commercials, or music videos like I do, you only have a few weeks for the whole project, so we might need to change the look at anytime during project.
That’s quite stressful and sometimes we have to make sacrifices on concepts in order to meet the deadline.
On one particular music video, the time from the on-set shoot to final delivery only gave us couple weeks for the VFX. The designs and visions we had at earlier stages of the project are quite different from what we ended up creating, we needed to compromise on so many things.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo da Vinci. But I always try to push the limit as much as I can, and give every single shot as much detail as I can.
I think every artist who got into the visual effects industry shares this passion, we love art and we wanna create beautiful things, that’s why the industry is so incredible right now. We are all trying our best and we love what we do!
5. How important is architecture design and your engineering major in what you do?
I have to say, it’s very important.
One of my bucket list items is to design my own home some day.
I’m always fascinated about how architects guide natural lighting into the building, how the lighting interacts with walls, glass, wood and all kind of textures.
It can be so clever.
A lot of people just think lights should be added once you know what areas you need to light up.
It’s quite the opposite – you should design anything with light in mind.
If you think of lighting last, you’ve already limited your design.
This concept is very important to VFX work.
Lighting is the key for FX simulations, CG renders, and compositing, which can easily set the mood, creating beautiful shadows and shading.
One more great thing about architectural design is that it trains your eye to recognize correct perspective.
Which makes my life a lot easier when I deal with complicated composites.
Studying engineering in college definitely made me who I am today.
I am always calculating and searching for answers and explanations and logic, wondering “why” or “how”.
My brain is always running like crazy and I need to be constantly learning to feed my mind.
6. Do you consider your work as an artistic job? A technical job? Why?
I really wanna say my job is an artistic job, but the majority of the time it’s technical.
We need to innovate with new technical solutions for almost every single project.
For this reason, I try to learn everything I can (other softwares, new techniques) to limit my technical time and focus on the art direction part.
Recently, I have been teaching myself Houdini.
I really think that Houdini is a great software for every VFX artist, which gives you a good logical view of the whole pipeline.
7. How do you see the future of VFX and this industry?
VFX is a technical industry. Every single big thing that has happened in the VFX industry were all because of the evolution of technology. Now a days, vfx is definitely become a big part of film industry, moving towards to the real “invisible effect”. Its everywhere in all kinda of productions but just nobody give it a spotlight. Visualizaion for the production definitely gonna change our pipeline. Soon or later there gonna be no different between physical production and virtual production. And VR and AR, virtual scout, real-time compositing (Ncam system), advanced motion capture, are all gonna become essential to future audiences experience. I am very very excited about the future and how the industry will grow and change.