VFX Interview 003: Alarich Alvarez Mahl: Compositor / Roto Paint Artist

How did you first learn about VFX (Visual Effects)?

I started by making my own videos. Like a lot of other people, I wanted to know how to make the lightsaber effect. The program I used for that was After Effects. There were lots of tutorials for After Effects online that I watched to learn about VFX.

Alarich Alvarez Mahl

How did you choose a school to learn VFX?

Most of my research was done online. I looked at student reviews of schools on message boards. Student work was also really important. Everything I saw pointed me to Lost Boys School of Visual Effects.

What did you get out of your experience at Lost Boys School of VFX?

I learned a lot. After graduation, I had a well-rounded education and set of skills. Lost Boys helped me get a foot in the door at a studio. From that, I was able to get my first job in VFX. I also made good friends that I still hang out with today.

What led you to pursue work in VFX?

My goal was to get into the film industry, to write and direct my own films. Knowing about visual effects is a skill that will be helpful for my future, not only for my current work. A director with a visual effects background can communicate easily with that department.

As a filmmaker/director with experience on set, how would you compare working in post-production to production?

They are very similar. You encounter many of the same problems and solutions, even if production is more physical. Both jobs can be very draining, but different types of energy are required. You still have to make judgment calls regardless.

Okja

What are some of your credits?

My recent ones are: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Okja, Power Rangers, and Doctor Strange. The others haven’t been released yet.

Could you tell us about your experience working on Okja for Netflix?

For that film, I did so many things: paint, roto, vendor fixes, and even a bit of matte painting. Okja was probably the most complicated job I’ve ever done. Most of the shots I worked on were above 600 frames, each at 4K resolution.

What was your favourite film to work on and why?

My favourite film to work on so far has actually been Power Rangers. Many of the stunts were done practically, so there were a lot of shots that needed wires removed and clothing recreated. I found that kind of work fun because I had creative control.

Power Rangers

What has been your favourite studio to work at so far?

Method Studios. They get all of the big Marvel movies, the work schedule is reasonable, and the pay is good.

What software did you use while at Method?

I used Nuke for roto and paint and mocha Pro for tracking.

How do you explain your job to your family and friends?

I always say it is like Photoshop but for video. Then instantly, they get it.

Did you ever work on a shot that seemed impossible? How did you deal with it?

I complained. (Laughs). Just kidding. I asked for help. I worked with a paint lead who was really good at breaking down a shot into individual tasks. That process makes it much easier to manage the workflow. Now I use that skill whenever I start a new shot to plan ahead.

What do you like most about your job?

It is seen by everybody, at the movie theatre, on a giant screen. I can point and say with pride that I worked on that shot.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

I would love to work on a new episode of Star Wars.

Doctor Strange

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

Pick up the software and start learning. There are trial and non-commercial versions you can download at home for free. Once you get a job in a studio, always ask for help when you need it. Try to learn from people who are more experienced. Be active, not passive.

Thank you for your time, Alarich.

My pleasure.

Interview by Andrew Zeller. August 2, 2017.

Connect with Alarich Alvarez Mahl on Linkedin.

VFX Interview 002: Yi Shen: Associate Production Manager

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Sony Pictures Imageworks

You have an interesting background. How does someone with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology/Animal Biology end up working in VFX (Visual Effects)?

I was considering my career outlook and looking at where other graduates went (usually back to get another degree). I didn’t have the desire to continue going to school, so I started looking for a job right after I graduated. I saw a job posting online for “Production Assistant” at Lux Visual Effects Inc. I knew what VFX were and that they were cool, but had no idea about working in the VFX industry.

What does a VFX Coordinator do?

It varies from company to company. At Lux, I started as a PA but soon began doing tasks that are normally done by the Coordinator, until I became one. A coordinator is usually responsible for scheduling: talking with artists to find out their ETA’s (when they expect to finish their shots), and making sure we hit deadlines. I sorted and distributed onset camera data to the artists. When we shared work with other studios, I was a vendor liaison, and took notes during client review sessions. At that time, we shipped physical hard drives to clients, so I ensured it was mailed to them without any errors. It probably wasn’t expected of me, but I did Q.C. work, checking frame-by-frame to make sure we didn’t send any files with technical bugs or mistakes. I even did some editorial work, because the previous coordinator also did some editing.

How did your job change when you became a Coordinator at a larger studio: Method?

In Method I started communicating with other departments, both horizontally (between lighting and compositing departments, for example) and vertically (e.g., between different leads and supervisors). There were only about 20 people at Lux, so they would just talk face-to-face. Method had bigger shows and more people, so there was more data to handle and more inter-departmental communication to facilitate.

The Maze Runner – Method Studios

How is that role different from your current role as Associate Production Manager at Sony Pictures Imageworks?

Sony has even more people and their own hierarchy, so there are more levels within the Production team. After you gain enough experience as a VFX Coordinator, you can move up to APM, my position. An APM is basically a DPM (Digital Production Manager) in training, because that is a big jump. From DPM, the next highest role would be Digital Producer, who works under the VFX Producer.

But to answer your question, the main difference is that I’m no longer responsible for only one department. I’m also learning about general show setup, managing resources, render queue priorities, and much more. On Kingsman: The Golden Circle, I worked with the lighting and environment departments. Now I’m working on a SPA (Sony Pictures Animation) with the C-FX or Character FX department, which focuses on cloth and hair simulations.

Is there specific software that you need to know how to use for your job?

A lot of companies use Shotgun nowadays. Sony has their own in-house tool. They offered me a week of training before starting work on production to learn the basics. I learned more tips and tricks from coworkers and experience.

You have worked at 3 different VFX studios: Lux Visual Effects Inc., Method Studios, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. Do they operate quite differently?

Lux is smaller, so there’s much less structure and it is really organic. You do whatever you can and the best you can to get to the finish line. For some people, that is an ideal environment. Method is a medium-sized studio in Vancouver with a team structure, a clearer hierarchy, and more formal client reviews. They require experienced artists and gurus who can troubleshoot. For big companies like Sony, there is a lot of structure and people to inform before you can make decisions. But it’s quite well-organized, which is why they are known for having a great pipeline.

What skills do you think are most needed for working in visual effects? Technical, artistic, or soft skills?

It depends on the job. Artists obviously need to have artistic skills, since it is their job. But you always remember someone who is enjoyable to work with, so soft skills are important too. Leads need more technical skills, I think, because most of the time they’re doing the hardest shots, troubleshooting, and debugging other artists’ work. For supervisors and production, soft skills are the most important because so much communication is required.

How do you deal with the stress of deadlines and unhappy clients?

I don’t feel stressed very often. I think it’s because I stayed focused on my role. Unless you’re at the very top, you’re not responsible for the big issues of keeping the client happy. There is almost always someone above you whose job is to worry about those things, while you only have to focus on excelling in your role. If an artist is really struggling with their shot and can’t meet the deadline, the worst thing they can do is tell no one that they’re struggling. It’s important to say when you don’t think you can finish something so a coordinator can find help for you.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

It can be challenging to ask your artists at the last minute if they can work OT (overtime) or on the weekends. We try to give people a heads-up but sometimes unexpected situations happen. When clients need work done by a certain time, we have to deliver that message to the artists. For Suicide Squad, the clients were really uncertain how the Enchantress character’s costume should look. The actress was filmed without a complete costume so they could choose a design later in post to add on top. The FX lead came up with many, many versions, which were quite different from one another. Some had a nebulous texture while others had spaghetti-like strings floating in the air around her. He even had to work on Christmas. Everyone was relieved when a final version was selected.

Suicide Squad – Sony Pictures Imageworks

What do you like most about your job?

Seeing the cool stuff! I don’t mean the finished product, but rather seeing a cool explosion that an FX artist in my department created, for example. I feel proud and happy, especially when their hard work is approved by the client. We get so happy to mark anything as “done”, no matter how small.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

Kingsman 3. I hope they make a sequel because I really enjoyed working on Kingsman: The Golden Circle! The people and the films are great!

How do you think the VFX industry has changed since you started working in it 7 years ago?

There is more diversity: Vancouver used to only work on TV shows mostly, but now there is feature film work and many different types of projects. There are also more studios. So it has become easier to find work.

Hotel Transylvania 2 – Sony Pictures Animation

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

If you want a glimpse into the VFX industry, working as a PA is one of the easier jobs to get. It’s an entry-level job that allows you to see how studios work and the different types of jobs. Bigger studios like Method or Sony tend to keep production staff, which may appeal to people looking for stability. There really is no one path into VFX. People come from all different backgrounds.

If you want to work in production, be humble, make friends and connections, and learn everything you can. Stay positive! Don’t get emotional or take things too personally. Being organized is also important, since you have to deal with lots of information and be able to communicate it well.

Thank you for your time, Yi.

Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about and reflect on my job.

Interview by Andrew Zeller. August 15, 2017

Connect with Yi Shen on Linkedin.

VFX Interview 001: Yves McCrae: Senior Roto Paint Artist

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Digital Domain

How did you first learn about VFX (Visual Effects)?

The first time was probably watching a DVD bonus feature from the original Star Wars trilogy.

What led you to pursue work in VFX?

The regular university thing didn’t work for me, since I wasn’t motivated unless the subject interested me. I studied 3D animation here in Vancouver but my first job in the industry was working as a Production Assistant at Hydraulx. They were really kind to me and said I could learn from the artists and later work on shots once they got a new project. I saw the entry path for 2D and found it more appealing than 3D.

Is that where you became a roto paint artist?

I actually learned how to roto using Silhouette FX at my next job, which was at Gener8. My work involved doing quality checks of the mattes created by other artists for stereo conversion and attending weekly meetings. Later I became a Rotoscope Pod Lead, overseeing and supporting a group of 5 artists.

Guardians of the Galaxy – Gener8

Which projects did you work on while you were there?

Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Maleficent, Godzilla, Escape Plan, and Into the Storm.

You also worked on the first season of the Amazon series: Man in the High Castle. What was that experience like?

It was great. A friend of mine was working on that show, and they wanted to have some onset VFX work done before sending the bulk of it off to other vendors. So they set up some work stations there for us to do roto and comp right after filming. I was the only rotopaint artist; the rest were compositors.

What has been your favourite studio to work at so far?

Digital Domain. They gave me shots I was comfortable doing and the chance to prove myself. My leads were very supportive and helped me when I had questions. I enjoyed answering the questions of newer artists as my skills improved.

What software did you use for rotopaint while at Digital Domain?

I used Nuke for roto and paint. They have mocha Pro for tracking too.

Digital Domain had quite a few VFX shots for The Fate of the Furious and Spider-Man: Homecoming. How did you handle the workload?

At crunch time, we had a team of about 40-50 artists for rotopaint sharing the shots. We all worked really hard.

How do you explain your job to your family and friends?

That’s a good question. I usually just tell them I make things disappear or I paint out wires. There was a shot in the trailer for The Fate of the Furious that I worked on where a submarine bursts out from under ice and launches cars into the air. The cars were practical, supported by wires, and the tires needed to be changed. Specific examples like that are helpful for explaining the kind of work I do.

The Fate of the Furious – Digital Domain

Did you ever work on a shot that seemed impossible? How did you deal with it?

There was a wire paintout shot on The Fate of the Furious that was really challenging. I kept trying different techniques thinking I could finish it by the end of the week. But it took me about a month before it was approved. I asked for advice and just kept at it to find what worked to get it done.

What do you like most about your job?

Being part of the creative process, part of the army needed to tell a story is the most rewarding aspect for me.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

I’d love to work at ILM on part of the Star Wars film series. I really enjoyed The Force Awakens.

How do you think the VFX industry has changed since you started working in it 5 years ago?

There is a lot more work now, with so many franchises and adaptations of comic books, etc. Film studios often try to appeal to everyone by creating spectacle, but that doesn’t always result in a good movie. It’s rare but really nice when VFX are used to tell a good story.

Yves McCrae

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

Learn as much as you can. Don’t be difficult to work with. And find the right balance in asking for help. You don’t want to ask questions too often or too little. You can even ask someone at the beginning: how often can I ask you for help? If they say, “anytime,” and you can see you’re not bothering them, take the opportunity to learn from them. Learn how to read people

Thank you for your time, Yves.

You’re welcome.

Portrait Photo and Interview by Andrew Zeller. July 16, 2017.

Connect with Yves McCrae on Linkedin.