Lana Titova talks about becoming a VFX artist and explains how she creates explosions and why these effects are a creative challenge.
My name is Lana and I am a Tech Artist. I have always been fascinated by film and creating this extra heightened world of reality that is so appealing to the audience. Unfortunately, studying filmmaking was not realistic for me for a while, so I have tried to find the next best thing.
After I got my Master's degree in Marketing and Advertising, I have worked for BBDO and Havas, managing accounts and content production for brands like Intel, Pepsi, Mars Foods, and many more. All that gave me insight into the production side of the business and once again I realized that I wanted to be more on the creative and production side of things, so I moved to Los Angeles to study Film Production and Directing at UCLA.
I have spent a few years working on marketing content for companies such as Atari, GameStreamer (one of the first game cloud streaming services), and others and doing my own personal film projects. All that got me experience in compositing, editing, post-production – basically all things film-related and CGI/3D pipelines, working with external CGI teams. It was a kind of natural stepping stone toward learning more and more about VFX.
Learning the Art of VFX
While, like most artists, I have got some experience with other CGI software out there, my focus for the last several years was learning Houdini. Two of the best learning paths I have found were courses made by Rebelway and the Studio Oriented Training by Timucin Ozger. I love it because it practically gives you total freedom of creating photorealistic effects and environments, especially when it comes to simulations and procedural modeling. I know that some artists find it intimidating – to get the most out of Houdini, you will have not just rely on ready-to-use modules, but also code in C++ like scripting in VEX and build your project from lego blocks – very similar to creating blueprints or material shaders in Unreal Engine. But I guess the math classes I took at the university are paying off now.
While working on my first portfolio demo reel, I got invited by Epic to the Unreal Fellowship – a program created by Epic to promote virtual production to filmmakers and VFX studios. So over a very intense course that requires you to work what feels like 80 hours a week, I learned a lot about creating films within Unreal Engine with the help of blueprints and other 3D packages.
So I have been watching Mandolorian and I really love this show and each shot in it looked so perfect I rewatched it several times. So that got me inspired to recreate some of the shots from the show, but with my spin on it.
At first, I was intimidated by the scope of things, thinking I would need a render farm and extensive manpower to achieve the same result. But step by step I managed to create those two shots. So step by step I created an environment, worked on the simulations and lookdev for each element of the scene, found the best render settings, optimized as much as I could since those simulations were quite heavy and took a lot of time to simulate and render.
The nuclear explosion shot was particularly interesting to make since nuclear explosions are not something done just for a film, but they are destructive and all the references you can get are low-quality given the destructive power of the explosion. So it makes sense to create those things in CGI and not by practical effects blowing things up. The other scene takes place on another planet and involves Tie Fighters, and just like an explosion, it is an impossible task to create in real life. Then the final scenes were composed in Nuke, I added lots of atmospheric and volumetric light effects, did the final compositing and color grading.
The first step was researching all the existing footage of nuclear explosions. So usually, the "leg" of the explosion is about the same length as the diameter of the fireball, and they're very specific to a nuclear blast – the cold air travels up into the fireball and slides down a little. Making those details happen within the sim took a lot of work.
Actually, the whole explosion is done by just one simulation, that way, it flows seamlessly from one shape into another. Though the tricky part was setting up emitters, I think I ended up having about five emitters in this explosion with different divergence values and different timing. After that, the pyro solver took over and did its magic.
Believability in Explosion VFX
There’s a lot of layers to the question of believability. To be honest, the most important thing is that the effect should fit the shot, the intention, and the environment. It should tell the story. You can get away with a lot of creativity when the story supports it. In this particular case, it’s just one shot, but here it would be composition — I set it upright in the dead center of the frame because you know that it overpowers everything else if there’s a nuclear explosion.
Talking about VFX and technical challenges, those are scale, color, composition, and supporting elements. I’ve spent quite a few hours adjusting condensation rings around the nuclear mushrooms. Those rings would stay much longer in reality, but I wanted to make this effect more dynamic and give a little glimpse of the explosion itself.
The Main Challenges
I think the main challenge is art. When you know the result you aim for, it’s easier to go and adjust parameters, look at wedges, and find the best value for each parameter. The problem with effects like that is it’s not something we see every day, thankfully, so our perception of the effect's visuals may vary from person to person.
As far as timing, it really depends on the resources and experience. After finishing this one, I can do similar effects pretty quickly. Though rendering takes a while. I rendered it on my home computer and all the render passes and with AOVs took me about 3 weeks, could be much faster if I was using a render farm.