1. Hi Stefano and thanks for accepting this interview. Can you tell us how did it all began: how did your career as a digital artist start?
First of all, thanks a lot for the interview and this opportunity. I’ll try to summarise this answer, since it’s a very long story. I’ve always loved cinema, since I was a boy, above all thanks to my parents who were two cinema enthusiasts. I’ve always wanted to work in the cinema industry and one of my dreams was to become photography director.
After studying at the scientific high school, I realized this career was not so easy and that I would never become a Storaro, a Kaminski or a Dickens. Partly because I was born in a village with 600 inhabitants, partly because we weren’t exactly flush with cash and above all because I didn’t believe I had the strength to get into this field. I registered for Turin’s Academy of Fine Arts, at least to stay in the art world.
Meanwhile, I was following online the several vfx breakdown from the visual effects companies, especially Dylan Cole’s works. Together with my watercolors I tried to learn this art by myself on Photoshop. After getting my master’s degree, I was lucky enough to work for a major architectural firm, where I had the opportunity to get more closely in touch with 3d (rendering, modeling, layout, compositing). I learned that for a few months and I fell in love with that, so I decided not to stop and to risk it all. I decided to take courses at Gnomon in Los Angeles.
My parents (may God bless them) got a mortgage and help me with that. That was the beginning. After a year or so of classes, I was hired at MPC commercials, where I cut my teeths on several commercials. Then I was hired at Blizzard cinematics as a Matte Painter. Unfortunately I stayed there just for three months, since the company had troubles renewing my visa on time. I’d have to wait for several more months before getting a new one (I never added Blizzard to my resume because I didn’t stay there very long and I didn’t have the chance to do much.
In case, I’ve got proofs…).
Luckily, in the meantime I was hired at MPC features in London, where I stayed for several years, until 2016 when I left for ILM. I’m still quite convinced I will never become a photography director, but at least I work in the cinema industry. I can check that box in my list of “to do” stuff.
2. You call yourself as a Generalist TD, but what is your main course?
Actually that’s not the way I call myself, but the role I was hired for. It may sound weird, but generalists still exist (in some vfx houses they call them environment artists). The generalist inside ILM, for example, mainly works with environments. Thanks to his multi-disciplinary approach in several steps of 3d, he’s one of the most suitable professional figures to follow the creation of a set. It’s hard to explain it in a few words: the basic idea is to assign the whole environment to a single person (or to a few persons) who keeps in mind a clear picture of how to balance composition, materials, textures and lighting for a sequence, and has got the skills to deliver the product in a consistent and fast way. Moreover, the generalists department, inside ILM for example, was created to solve the problems which can occur inside a more complex pipeline to deliver one (or more) very big shot(s). Sometimes it can be more expensive to get 15 shots across the pipeline than to give them to a single person who, by using less standardised techniques inside the company, allows to deliver that sequence with reduced times and costs. We don’t only work on environments: sometimes there are some specific customer requirements, or technical problems inside the pipeline, so some shots are sent to Gen to be fixed. For example: distorted reflections by characters who are not there, matte paintings to solve plate problems or create extensions, props who don’t work anymore on characters because the plate was mirrored on the horizontal axis etc. So we also act as stopgaps. After this long introduction (sorry for being so verbose), to answer your question: over time I found myself focussing more and more on shading, lighting and scene optimization (I’m a RAM freak).
3. You are currently working at one of the biggest VFX production houses in the world: Industrial Light and Magic.
What does working on such productions mean in terms of responsibilities?
I don’t know how to place it in rules or steps. Personally I’ve always thought that, when you work for such large companies (ILM, MPC, Dneg, Framestore, Method, Weta etc etc), it’s very important to be consistent, reliable and competent, irrespective of the history of the firm. A good digital artist needs to know his reaction times to tasks, his skills and above all his limits. Of course responsabilities change with the role (junior, mid, senior, lead, supervisor), but the will and, at the same time, the weight to deliver your job in the best way possible, with the best quality achievable and on schedule is always the same. A delay in delivery, a poorly developed asset, a dubious design can cause a chain reaction which can lead to losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a glimpse of an eye.
4. Your background involves a remarkable filmography, such as: Avengers: Infinity war, Aladdin, Star Wars ep VIII: The last Jedi, Guardians of the Galaxy, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Jungle book, Passengers. Which was your role?
In all those aforementioned movies, I essentially worked just on environments. I worked with very large or very small teams to deliver environments.
For example, on Jungle Book we were a very large team of people who worked in an interdepartmental way to get those giant sets across the pipeline and reach the result which then led to the Academy Award.
In Star Wars, instead, I recieved establishing shots of Cantobight city where I was completely alone, so I could work the way I thought it was best for me.
In Avengers Infinity War we were a team of 5 people who split the set of Wakanda in 5 geographical zones and each one of us worked on his own corner. So… environments.
5. How is the VFX world evolving, and how do you think it will evolve in the next decade?
It’s incredible how in very few years the way to approach a movie, in terms of work and VFX, has completely changed. Some years ago it was more natural to wait for hours or days before watching a render or checking a sequence layout on camera. Now the mental approach of getting your hands on a software has changed so much: people have no more patience.
The computing power has increased tenfold, so has the processing speed and our willingness to wait is inversely proportions. A lot of softwares were born which allow you to display in real time a look dev of the maps you create (such as Substance, Mari), or to navigate in a very complex layout and to move lights and change shaders (Clarisse, Usd, Unreal) on trillions of poligons. So you can get a pleasant result very quickly and, as a worker who loves his job, I’m also adapting to this impatience.
I can’t wait to see a result, an image, something colourful and pleasant. A lot of companies are spending many resources in the development of real-time (ILM, for example, has invested a lot on real-time ray tracing for ILMxLab and Nvidia).
It allowes directors, designers, digital artists and so on to watch on screen environments and creatures who don’t exist, if not after post production, and to make the changes they want as they were on a real set.
This has a very significant impact on the visionariness which is at the heart of every project.
Something is happening which, ironically, takes us a little bit back to the origins of cinema. Personally, and that’s only my idea, I think we will focus more and more in making a good pre-production planning, so that we will be able to realize shootings with real-time creatures and environments, but with a much higher quality. Just like people used to do in the past. Now you get a lot of notes to change skies, mountains, lights, monsters etc in post-production. But in a very near future, such things will be cut dramatically, and the director will have to direct every scene by watching through a camera moving in a real-time environment. So, maybe, a large percentage of the post-production work (modelation, texturing, look-dev etc) will move to pre-production, leaving just minor touches for the post. Personally (and, I repeat, that’s just my opinion), I think the future (even if it’s almost present) for our field lies in real-time.
6. Should you give advice to a student who wants to undertake this career, what will you suggest? Studying as a generalist or specialize?
I’ve never been a good advisor on that matter. What I suggest is to try and direct your skills or your interests towards that field that, should it become your job, you’re 90% sure you will get almost never bored while doing it. It’s my own interpretation of the saying: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.
Damn, how cheesy!
Thanks a lot for your openness and your time, and good luck for your future projects and your career.