Hi Jean Claude, thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us 🙂
1. People call you “The Houdini Wizard”. Can you tell us how the relationship between you and the world famous software started?
At first my passion for computers and technology led me to experiment with all kinds of hardware and softwares and about 15 years ago a friend of mine who used to work at Mediaset introduced me to Houdini.
It immediately struck me from its procedural node structure, but it was not been neither easy or quick to learn it, especially since it was so different from any other software.
At that time I was a Softimage|3D and Softimage|XSI FX artist and trainer, but in my spare time I started playing with Houdini.
In 2005, finally, I had the opportunity to focus more on this software and since then I’ve never looked back at any other software.
2. What do you think Hudini has more than other VFX and 3D animation softwares?
Houdini, by exploiting the concept of proceduralism (which practically translates into a logical connection of operations instead of sequentially applied commands) makes the creation of complicated setup for effects, or modeling and animation in general, extremely flexible. Moreover, thanks to its non-destructive structure, it lets you generate infinite variations of any model, simulation or animation.
This approach is fundamental when working on shots or advertising, since these require continuous changes or multiple variations of the same simulation, and Houdini gives you such flexbility and speed.
An example is the “rain of lava bombs” in a “2012” movie sequence, where hundreds of explosions are seen, all of which are apparently different, but are actually generated by a single setup that returns dozens of variants to each execution of the setup itself.
3. You have a twenty-year experience in computer graphics. Is there an episode in particular that made you grow? What made a breakthrough in your career?
In 2005 I moved from Milan to Turin and decided that it was finally time to make an other step in my professional life, and to focus exclusively on Houdini.
I made a quick demonstration of the software at the studio where I was hired (Lumiq Studios) and I had the responsibility to set up the VFX team on the animated film I was involved, Donkey Xote.
In a year and a half, with the help of two promising guys, I was charged for developing VFX pipeline and it was an amazing opportunity for me.
Thanks to this experience I learned a lot about this software, for example how to integrate it with other departments such as modelers, animators and renderers.
That year and a half of work allowed me to have my first Showreel based entirely on Houdini and find work in London where I moved in early 2006.
4. You have collaborated with major film productions. What are the ones that have enriched you more and why?
Personally I think working in big productions is not necessarily synonymous of more experience or enrichment, in fact, for me it was the opposite.
My last experience in Italy in Lumiq was the first example, as I explained earlier.
In large studies and large budget projects, your range of responsibilities as a VFX artist narrows down, as you have to concentrate on a particular effect for months. In smaller productions, you have to deal with many aspects very different from each other.
Undoubtedly I also learned a lot from the experience gained on bigger productions. For example, I have been able to delineate my professional figure more strongly, but above all I learned how a complete production pipeline works. I also understood the enormous importance of the pre-production phase, which was underestimated in Italy very much.
Between 2012 and 2014 I returned to work for smaller studios and independent projects, one being Inkymind UK, an italian studio based in London.
Again, I decided to set up and managing a new team of VFX artists, and the experience I had in big productions help me a lot.
5. How is the pipeline articulated in this kind of production from the point of view of visual effects?
The process can be very different depending on the type, size and available budget for the project you are working on. Undoubtedly, everything is usually dictated by the time available and the number of people involved.
It should also be understood that the term “visual effect” is today very generic and can cover effects such as explosions but also whole systems for generating and animating vegetation and so on.
That’s why it’s difficult to talk about “standard pipeline”. Instead, it is more common to develop an appropriate pipeline for each project.
6. What are the key steps in creating VFX?
Regardless of the type of effects you are working on, I personally believe it is crucial to have a clear idea of the result you have to achieve. There are elements that are necessary and they constitute the first phase of VFX development.
3D camera tracking, a plate and 3D models that generate, or interact with the actual visual effect, are just some of such elements, to make a few examples.
These elements are produced by different departments and then put together by a dedicated team in a 3D scene called “Layout” , VFX artsist use to understand where and how the action takes place.
Taking the “2012” example, I had the plate, which is the shooting on set, the 3D camera tracking, the 3D environment and the animated model of the RV driven by John Cusack.
I also had a 3D reconstruction of the ground, which was the base geometry we, at the VF deprtment, needed to blow up it from the lava bombs impacts.
Our team was also given the impact positionsof the lava bombs. At this point we devoloped a system that was able to read the impact data, such as impact speed and angle, compositing team, which put tigether all the various 3D renders end 2D elements into the final image. This step is usually done roughly also by the FX artists during the development phase of the effect itself.
7. You are an artist and also a teacher. What are your advice to your students?
The visual effects industry is extremely competitive today.
I always advise students to be very humble, have a lot of patience, but also have strong determination.
The VFX artist’s offer is very high, thanks to the many online schools present everywhere and the demand for high-skilled artists is just as high.
Some of my Italian students got jobs offers in London, or in other foreign countries, only after investing several months to practice and building a showreel, or portfolio, to show that they really have ambition and determination, or simply passion necessary to fit in this industry.
Too many, unfortunately, still think that attesting to a VFX course is a guarantee of getting a job.
8. Let’s Talk about Visual Cortex Lab, what is it and how did it start?
In 2014 I decided to go back to freelance work, I wanted to be my own boss, I also wanted to work on projects no more then 3 months long and still have the oppurtunity to teach as well.
I decided to open Visual Cortex Lab Ltd in London, mainly to work with schools all over the world.
Currently Visual Cortex Lab focuses on student training on Houdini and helps the transition of professionals coming from other 3D softwares.
I also work almost full time with SideFX (the Toronto based company that created and develops Houdini), providing support to production studios all over the world.
9. What do you think will be the evolution of computer graphics over the next few years?
Personally I’m not a big fan of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality, or increased reality), it’s fairly clear that evolution is going in that direction.
3D, in the sense of film stereoscopically projected, has not achieved that success that many expected.
Through the full immersion of the audience, it is more desirable to create content for entertainment applications such as theme parks, content for smartphones, simulations, and movie productions.
In addition, as the quality of “real time” images, like videogames, are increasingly close to the cinematic one, one can easily imagine that in a time not too far away, movies will also be watched by wearing a helmet.