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My father studied “Low-Frequency Machinery” which is a fancy term for TVs and radios. He brought home the first computer when I was just about to enter primary school. It was an old I386 with DOS – that was in the mid-90s. He gave me a jump-start and later I continued learning on my own.
I invested more and more time in computers and took a Bachelor Program in Computer and Media Technologies, though for extra classes I picked up classical painting. On the side, I was always doing a bit of drawing and painting which migrated to graphic design and web design and even amateur matte painting.
At one point, I decided to jump ship and do something different. I enrolled in an Art & Technology program. My curriculum included photography, camera work, audio, screenplay and copywriting, marketing, web, game design and development and a lot of other stuff not directly connected with VFX. I started learning VFX-related things on my own, but IT, computer hardware, painting, photography and other disciplines were what got my back. It is all those disciplines that build the foundation. I mean I am not a professional in any of those disciplines and I barely scratched the surface in most of them but the collection of the fundamentals of those disciplines is what pushed me and made me a VFX artist. As the old saying goes – there is no useless knowledge, only knowledge you don’t know how to use.
Since I joined WorldWide FX I have worked on 10 projects including Rambo: Last Blood, Angel has Fallen, Hellboy, Hunterkiller and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I have worked on these projects as Lighting and LookDev artist and Render TD. Currently, I am working on other projects I cannot name due to NDA.
Looking at myself and my development over the years I can say I am a bit of a spread out person. I was never able to fully and completely devote myself to one discipline which might explain why I failed in IT or painting or many other things I've picked over the years. VFX, on the other hand, is a place of countless puzzles and you never know where the solution might arrive from. Looking back at it, VFX might have been the only natural path my personality could have taken. Every new project can be somewhat similar but sometimes it presents itself as a completely different challenge with a new set of rules. I think it is this constantly ever-changing field that keeps me going to work every day waiting for the next challenge.
Art & Technology
There is no difference between art and technology. Math is art just as much as painting. A programming language is just another language, like English or German. It does not matter if you color-correct your images with sliders or with math expressions. It is about the mindset. The same way an artist paints for years to train his hand to be an extension of his ideas and emotions, a VFX artist trains himself to make a machine turn 1s and 0s into images. It is about having a clear goal in your head and executing it. Art is an illusion, a lie. It provokes the audience. It is all about the successful transmission of ideas and emotion, not how you got there.
Tools Are Just Tools
A lot of young artists are trying to jump straight into tools without developing their “artistry” first. It is like running before walking. Tools are only as good as the artist who uses them. What is important is to have a solid grasp of the basics. Each part of VFX sits firmly on older classical disciplines. Being a Lighting artist in VFX, for example, I use a lot of knowledge I gained from set-lighting, photography or classical drawing and painting mixed with computer nerdiness. New artists should not expect software to compensate for them lacking in other aspects. If they want to become true professionals, they should not expect fancy “Make Awesome” buttons like Instagram filters you apply to photos.
A software solution is a tool that the artist uses, but it does not define the artist. A very good artist will push his tools to the limit. I use Katana from Foundry on a daily basis – it is a tool that gives me almost infinite possibilities for both lighting and TD tasks. But I can use Katana to its full potential only by having a solid understanding of what and how something happens there when I create an image.
A tool has one main purpose – to be used. As the artist progresses, he can outgrow tools that would start to restrict him. At the current moment, the only tool that I feel is sufficient and allows me to work to my full potential at the fastest possible rate is Katana. For the past few years, I have been playing part in this tango with Foundry where I push Katana over the edge, then, soon enough, the Foundry team upgrades and sends back a new better version of the program and the cycle continues. It’s a repeating process – artists challenge technology and technology inspires artists.
Kill Your Darlings
I think one of the hardest challenges for me was to realize some truth about being a VFX artist, especially that the “art” part is very personal. What you like is not necessarily the same as what is wanted or needed for the project. During a certain project, I had to relight an entire sequence eight times. Eight different light conditions with eight different color pallets and eight different moods. All of that just to find out (when the trailer landed) that they graded the final version with the same colors as in my very first try. This could be crushing and demotivating for someone who has just started in VFX. But at that time, the “kill your darlings” philosophy was a very good acquirement of mine.
“Kill your darlings” is a very important lesson. And it is hard when you are just starting out and working hard on something just to be scrapped. The tight confinements in which you need to navigate might feel discouraging at first, but with time and experience, you learn how to use the little wiggle room to express yourself as an artist.
I have gotten pretty good at matching plates but that does not make me an outstanding artist. What I am striving for is to start identifying the places where I can put my own personal touches. Even when you are matching a plate there is still some little wiggle room to show yourself and your unique vision. You can cheat the image a bit so you can still be grounded in reality but integrate a bit of yourself and create even more pleasing visuals. I started finding more ways for it with experience but I am not always successful. This is the next step I see in my development and it is what will take me from being a decent lighting artist to becoming an exceptional one.
To all the starters in this industry - you will get there. Rome was not built in a day. It will take years. Just keep going.